Order of predicted finish: 1. Eagles 2. Washington 3. New York Giants 4. Dallas Cowboys.
Note: Because the nickname of the Washington NFL franchise is considered to be an offensive racial slur to Native Americans, The Chris Murray Report will no longer use that name in its editorial content.
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
PHILADELPHIA—After all the OTAs, off-season acquisitions and sitting through preseason games, we are finally into the regular season. The Eagles will open the 2014 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday (1:00 p.m. CBS).
The Birds will come into the 2014 season as the defending NFC East champions and there’s no reason to think they will not be in that same position when the regular-season ends in January even with a tougher schedule and the loss of speedy wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
I don’t know if Nick Foles (27 touchdown passes, two interceptions) and LeSean McCoy (314 carries, 1607 yards) will put up the numbers they did last season, but they have a year under head coach Chip Kelly’s fast-paced, no-huddle read-option offense and they are expecting to be even better.
With additions like speedy veteran running back Darren Sproles on the team, McCoy said he’s expecting the Eagles offense to be even better in 2014 whether he touches the ball more than 300 times or not.
“I think with the mix of Sproles doing different things, sometimes a 65-yard carry can be the same as a 65-yard (pass) route with Sproles,” McCoy said. “I’m learning that it doesn’t take a lot of reps or a lot of touches to be more productive and get what you want done. You could do it with less.
“I know I’m going to be the key guy they’re watching … but the guys up front with the way they’re blocking and the guys around me, especially with Sproles in there mixing it up with screens and runs and passes. With Maclin getting back and healthy, we have a guy that can stretch the field and do things across the middle. We definitely have weapons.”
Eagles’ fans are no doubt wondering if Jeremy Maclin, who hasn’t played in a regular season game since the end of the 2012 season, can be the deep receiver that can stretch the defense in the way that Jackson did last season.
The question for the Eagles is whether or not the defense can improve upon their performance late last season in 2014? The Birds ranked fourth in the NFL in the takeaway-giveaway category last season, but was 32nd against the pass.
But the big concern for the Eagles is whether they can generate a pass-rush, something that hurt them in the loss to the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs last season. During the preseason, the first team didn’t get a sack.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he’s confident in his defense because his players are more familiar with the team’s 3-4 scheme. He won’t know how better his defense is until the lights come on against Jacksonville.
“Every year is a new year, so you don’t know until the final whistle goes off in the Jacksonville game, really what our starting point is,” Davis said. “But we are more confident because we know them better.”
Both Davis and Kelly said they are expecting big things from backup defense end Vinny Curry and inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. The Birds added a pair of free agents in veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins and former Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll to bolster the secondary.
The Eagles will win the NFC East because quite frankly the rest of the division isn’t that good. Look for them to finish 10-6. Actually, 9-7 might be enough to put the Birds over the top.
Washington (Predicted finish: 8-8)
Among the teams other than the Eagles that could win the NFC East, the Washington squad could be that team.
With defensive coordinator Jim Haslett running the defense and veterans like linebacker Brian Orakbo, defensive lineman Ryan Kerrigan and linebacker Trent Murphy, along with newcomer defensive end Jason Hatcher, who had 11 sacks for the Dallas Cowboys last season, Washington will be decent on defense.
The Redskins will have a veteran secondary with players like safety Ryan Clark and cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
The question is whether Washington’s offense with Robert Griffin III at quarterback can be consistent. The team has the weapons on offense with running back Alfred Morris and wide receivers like DeSean Jackson, Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon.
RGIII struggled in preseason so badly that former Washington quarterback and TV analyst Joe Theismann said the team should start Kirk Cousins instead of Griffin. The former Michigan State star did a better job of moving the team during the exhibition season—albeit against second and third string competition.
In Griffin’s defense, Washington’s first team offensive line didn’t do a good job of protecting the quarterback during the preseason. The same could be said for last season as Washington quarterbacks were sacked 43 times.
One of the things Washington did to get better for 2014 was cut center Will Montgomery, who reportedly made incorrect line calls that probably caused some of the sacks of Griffin and Cousins. This season, Kory Lichtensteiger was moved from guard to center and they also signed six-foot-3, 315-pound guard Shawn Lauvao, who played with the Cleveland Browns.
The offensive line will be the key to protecting Griffin and making holes for Morris.
New head coach Jay Gruden is sticking with RGIII as Washington’s starter for now. If Griffin struggles in the early going will Gruden pull the plug and go with Cousins?
Under Gruden’s system, Griffin won’t be running the read option. He has to make plays from the pocket and not take off and run when his first option is not open. That may be an adjustment for Griffin, but he’s also smart enough to discipline his game to do it.
If RGIII can get off to a good start and can be consistent with the weapons he has on offense, Washington can make this a competitive race and perhaps win it if a few things break their way.
New York Giants (Predicted finish: 7-9)
Giants quarterback Eli Manning had the worst season of his career in 2013. He threw 27 interceptions. Coming into this season, New York hired former Green Bay Packers quarterback Ben McAdoo as the new offensive coordinator who will install a West Coast-style offense.
With the sudden retirement of running back David Wilson due to a neck injury, the Giants running game will feature former Oakland Raiders ball carrier Rashad Jennings and former Boston College star Andre Williams, who gained 2,177 yards as a senior and was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
At the wideout position, Victor Cruz should be the beneficiary of the Giants new West Coast system. New York also has rookie wide receiver and former LSU star Odell Beckham, who has been slowed down by a hamstring injury. The G-men will also return Reuben Randle who has shown flashes of brilliance at times.
The key to Giants on offense will be their offensive line, which was the main culprit of the Giants woes last season. New York will have a revamped offensive line with left tackle Will Beatty (6-6, 319 pounds) as its most experienced player.
The Giants will need to develop some chemistry along that offensive line to make sure McAdoo’s schemes can work.
On defense, the Giants are hoping that defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul can have the kind of season he had in 2011 when he had 16.5 sacks. The Giants also have veterans Mathias Kiwanuka and Cullen Jenkins. Key free-agent acquisitions include corner back Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain.
The Giants are average at best and don’t necessarily scare anybody on defense. But then again no one in the NFC East does.
Dallas Cowboys (Predicted finish: 7-9)
Speaking of defenses that don’t scare anybody, the Cowboys were awful on defense last season even with DeMarcus Ware and they will be awful without him this season. They lost former Penn State star Sean Lee to a season-ending knee injury during OTAs.
The Boys will be without injured cornerback Orlando Scandrick and cornerback Morris Claiborne didn’t play during the preseason. Throughout the preseason, the Cowboys got pushed up and down the field.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to figure out a way to make chicken soup out of chicken bleep or lemonade out of lemons. However you want to look at it, Marinelli has to make something out of a defense that is destined to give up a whole bunch of points and a lot of yards this season.
The good news for the Cowboys is that they are stacked offensively.
Everybody’s favorite whippin’ boy, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is not only coming off of back surgery, he’s also coming off a season in which he threw 31 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
In week 16, his last game before his surgery, Romo rallied the Cowboys from a nine-point deficit in the last five minutes to beat Washington to keep their playoffs hopes alive to that point in the season.
With receivers like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, the Cowboys are going to put points on the board.
They also have a solid running game with DeMarco Murray, who gained 1,121 yards and scored nine touchdowns last season. If you have Bryant, Witten and Murray on your fantasy team, you will no doubt score points.
It is also no doubt in my mind that Dallas’s defense will also give up just as many points as Romo and the Cowboys will score. Dallas will win games by scores like 38-31 or 51-48 and they will lose games like that as well. When you’re playing from behind or having to score on every possession, mistakes are going to be made.
Romo will throw a few “Hell-no’s” along the way which means you’ll be hearing a lot from his critics.