Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Eagles: I'm way too nice a guy to suggest hiring Tonya Harding as a secondary coach. The Eagles' pass defense has been pretty bad for the past few years. Some of that is because of talent. Some of it is because of scheme. But some of it is because of Beckham, Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson playing in the division. Those guys are good. With Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator, the Eagles' focus will be on disrupting the quarterback. Pressuring Eli Manning is going to be more doable than covering Beckham. I also doubt Jim Schwartz will be as reluctant to change his game plan and help out in coverage as Bill Davis was the past three years. That should help to at least slow Beckham down.
John Keim, Washington Redskins: The Redskins signed Josh Norman, so that provides part of the answer -- Beckham is a guy they know they must stop. Norman and Beckham went at it hard in their one meeting last season in a matchup that looked more MMA-ish. Norman helped to hold him without a catch in the first half; Beckham finished with six catches for 76 yards. The Redskins haven't had any luck against Beckham, who has a combined 28 catches for 364 yards and five touchdowns in three meetings. So they view him as a difficult receiver to handle (in the past, I've heard grumbles about his on-field antics or comments). The Redskins have said multiple times that the key is being physical with him, yet they haven't done a good job of playing that way. I wonder, too, how much more difficult he'll be to handle if new Giants teammate Sterling Shepard shows he can play.
Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys: Thankfully for the Cowboys, he did not have the highlight of the year last season, as he did in 2014 when he made that one-handed grab on Brandon Carr. At times it seemed as if Carr was the new "agony of defeat," considering how much they showed Beckham's catch over and over. But a funny thing happened in 2015. Beckham wasn't a factor in either game. He caught nine passes for 79 yards. The Cowboys kept him under wraps after seeing the damage he could do in 2014. The Cowboys don't vary their coverages often. They stay basic and they often don't shadow the big-time receivers, either. They rely on team defense to get the job done. It worked last year and I can't see them changing much in 2016.
In Philadelphia, Ryan became something else entirely: a legend. And legends, unlike men, never really die.
Ryan, the man and the coach, died Tuesday at the age of 85.
Ryan's legend lives on, some 30 years after he became head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. His status in this toughest of sports towns is hard to explain. Ryan never won a playoff game with the Eagles, but he built and unleashed a team that won a permanent place in the hearts of fans who never quite fully embraced more successful figures like Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb.
How did Ryan do it? By sheer force of personality. He arrived in Philadelphia just days after his Chicago Bears defenders carried him off the field after a Super Bowl championship. And he carried himself as if he were still up there, on the shoulders of his victorious troops.
During his first training camp, after a practice at West Chester University, Ryan grabbed a microphone and addressed bleachers full of fans. He told them that the Eagles would win the NFC East that year, and they would do it by sweeping their eight games against division rivals Dallas, Washington, New York and St. Louis.
The Eagles went 5-11 in 1986, Ryan's first season. There was no division title. That didn't begin to affect the coach's bluster. When NFL players went on strike in 1987, Ryan's message to his team was simple: Stick together. Whatever you do, do it as a team.
Led by defensive end Reggie White and quarterback Ron Jaworski, the Eagles followed their coach's advice. They held meetings at Jaworski's New Jersey golf club and spent their days picketing outside Veterans Stadium.
In other cities, star players with more money at stake were crossing picket lines. The league decided to play on, with teams assembled from players who had been cut a few weeks earlier. Ryan could not be bothered.
His men were out on the picket line. He went through the motions with his replacement team, but that was it. While other coaches were talking about the farcical replacement games as if they really mattered, Ryan didn't try to hide his contempt.
The Eagles' first strike game was against the Bears at Veterans Stadium. The scene outside the Vet was more compelling than anything that happened inside. A convoy of Teamsters drove trucks around the stadium. Striking Eagles players formed a picket line. The Bears thrashed the Eagles 35-3.
It all came to a head when the replacement Eagles went to Dallas to play the not-so-replacement Cowboys. Tom Landry's team had 18 players who crossed the picket line, including quarterback Danny White, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive stars Randy White and Ed "Too Tall" Jones.
Dallas won 41-22.
Two weeks later, the Cowboys played the Eagles at Veterans Stadium. The strike had ended a few days earlier. The Eagles had returned to their locker room en masse. On the field, they took revenge on the Cowboys team that had embarrassed their replacement team two weeks earlier. They sacked White five times and held Dorsett to just 32 yards rushing.
The Eagles led 30-20 as they lined up in the fourth quarter with time running out. Instead of taking a knee, quarterback Randall Cunningham dropped back and lofted a deep pass to wide receiver Mike Quick, who was streaking toward the end zone.
Quick drew a pass interference call. The game ended with Keith Byars plowing into the end zone from the 1-yard line. The scoreboard read 37-20. Ryan ran up the tunnel toward the Eagles locker room and spotted a knot of reporters in the hallway.
"F--- 'em," Ryan shouted.
And that expressed his attitude toward the whole thing. Ryan, who had been an Army master sergeant during the Korean War, believed in discipline and order. But there was also a rebellious Oklahoman under the surface. If Ryan respected someone, he was as loyal as could be.
If not? Well, Ryan's Eagles went 7-5 in 1987. The replacement team went 0-3. After the season, Ryan opened a news conference by unveiling "scab rings" that he awarded to team president Harry Gamble and his assistant, George Azar. The rings -- the kind of oversized items typically awarded to a top salesman or executive -- were not meant as compliments.
And that's where the cracks started to form. Ryan sided with his players during the emotional 1987 strike, but he also took their side in contract squabbles with owner Norman Braman. Ryan referred to Braman as "the guy in France," because Braman spent some of his time at a villa he owned there.
For the next three seasons, Ryan's Eagles went to the playoffs. They lost their first game each time.
After the 1988 season, the Eagles were NFC East champions and had to travel to Chicago to play the Bears. For Ryan, it was an emotional return to the city where he'd coached one of the NFL's most ferocious defenses. So everyone would know the Eagles weren't sneaking into town, Ryan had the team buses drive from O'Hare to Soldier Field. They circled the stadium, horns blaring.
The next day, a sudden fog covered the lakefront. The second half of the game was played in fog so thick, reporters were allowed to come down from the press box and watch from the sidelines. It didn't help. Players would run past and disappear into the mist.
The Eagles lost 20-12. The next year, they lost a wild-card game to the Los Angeles Rams, 21-7 at Veterans Stadium. A year after that, it was Washington, a team the Eagles had beaten at Veterans Stadium, 28-14 in November -- the infamous "Body Bag" game.
In January, Washington beat the Eagles 20-6 in a wild-card game at the Vet.
Ryan's contract was up. Braman, the man he had mocked and aggravated for five years, had no intention of offering Ryan another one.
"I never got fired for winning before," Ryan said.
Ryan had gone 31-17 in his last three seasons, but 0-3 in the playoffs. He had presided over a team that was fiercely loyal to the coach, but had been unable to come up big in the postseason. Meanwhile, NFC East rivals New York and Washington had won Super Bowls. The hated Cowboys had hired Jimmy Johnson and drafted Troy Aikman and were on the threshold of their 1990s dynasty.
Ryan left Philadelphia. He coached in Houston and Arizona, but never had quite the same impact in those cities.
In Philadelphia, Ryan is still a legend, a coach who took no guff and made no apologies. Ryan was the man who led that beloved but ultimately underachieving 1980s team: Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner, Keith Jackson, Keith Byars, Andre Waters.
Those Eagles were larger-than-life heroes in a city where football passion is all the more intense after 55 years without a championship. At the center of that remarkable team and that unforgettable time was a man whose legend only grew after his departure.
Today's question: How is Kirk Cousins and the Redskins’ offense perceived outside of Washington?
Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys: Considering the state of the Cowboys’ defense, they are in no position to thumb their nose at any offense. The best move the Cowboys made in the offseason for their defense was drafting Ezekiel Elliott No. 4 overall with the hopes the running back can keep the defense off the field. I’m being a little harsh, but I did like the signing of Cedric Thornton. I think he can play a big role on their defense. To me, Cousins still is something of a mystery. He was extremely pedestrian in the first meeting last year and on fire in the last game, when he played a half. DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed and Pierre Garcon have had moments against the Cowboys. Josh Doctson will be a player. We’ll see if Matt Jones can be a 1,000-yard back, but the Cowboys know what kind of effect Bill Callahan can have on a running game. The key will be Cousins. I don’t know if he can carry an offense, but I think he can do more than just manage one.
Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Eagles: Cousins beat the Eagles twice last year. If the Eagles had won those games, they would have won the NFC East title instead of Washington. So those were the biggest games of the season, as far as the Eagles were concerned. Cousins led his team on a game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown drive at FedEx Field in October, then came into Lincoln Financial Field with the season on the line in December and beat the Eagles 38-24. If the Eagles don’t respect Cousins, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed, they need more than Jim Schwartz to fix their defense.
Dan Graziano, New York Giants: I’ve mentioned this before, but the Giants have long viewed Cousins as the type of quarterback who will make mistakes down the field if pressured, and they go into every game against him stressing the importance of looking for those moments and taking advantage of them. It worked well in the first meeting last year, not so much in the second. But as for the offense in general, the Giants have great respect for the speed of DeSean Jackson and they consider Jordan Reed a major problem in terms of matchups. Their pass-rushers look at left tackle Trent Williams as one of the best in the league at his position. For the past few years, a lot of talk in the Giants’ locker room before Washington games was about Alfred Morris and the run game, so I think everyone’s interested to see the state of the Washington run game with Morris gone.
Fred’s, on the corner of Pine Street and Milwaukee Avenue, still has the “world’s best burgers.” If you sit at table No. 5, you will read all about Romo’s career and see pictures of him in high school. Fun fact: His stroke average on the golf team as a senior was a 40, a six-stroke improvement over his freshman year.
Around the corner is Adrian’s Frozen Custard, which opened in 1974. Go with the Oreo Flurrie, although you can’t go wrong with any choice.
Just off downtown is Karcher Middle School. It was the high school when Romo lived in Burlington. On the football field, kids will be playing soccer or hula hooping. One of them might be wearing a Russell Wilson jersey -- not a Cowboys jersey with Romo’s No. 9. On the track around the field some of them have drawn pictures in chalk. The scoreboard attached to the wall in the back of the school is still there and weatherworn. But the best part is this: The track is only a fifth of a mile long, so the end zones weren’t just grass when Romo played. They were tar, too, and receivers had plenty of scraped knees from catching touchdown passes.
Back on Pine Street, but closer to the high school, is Napoli’s Restaurant and Pizzeria. The square-cut pizza is almost perfect. Pepperoni and sausage would be the choice.
When you go over the Fox River, you can head to Romo’s old house. His sister, Jossalyn, lives there now. His parents, Joan and Ramiro, moved to a nearby town a few years ago. Just down the street is Browns Lake Golf Course where Romo would spend hours.
This is home.
“I actually find that you can go home again,” Romo said, a riff on Thomas Wolfe’s "You Can’t Go Home Again." “I know there’s that quote or saying that says you can’t, but I’ve found when I come back home, it’s always home. That’s the great thing.”
Last week, Romo held his football camp at Burlington High School along with the second Border Battle, a seven-on-seven tournament featuring high school teams from Wisconsin and Illinois. As he stood on the field Wednesday while middle schoolers and elementary kids ran around, a waft of chocolate was in the air from the nearby Nestle plant that has made Burlington “Chocolate City USA.”
Steve Tenhagen was Romo’s favorite receiver in 1996 at Burlington High. They combined for 56 catches, 934 yards and 13 touchdowns. Today, Tenhagen is the head football coach at Burlington. He does a lot of the planning for the camp and Border Battle.
“Obviously, we’ve changed and matured, but he’s the same person,” Tenhagen said. “He comes back to town and we hang out with our high school buddies, and it’s similar to when we were hanging out in our basements in high school after practice.”
For two days, the basement has been replaced by the outdoor living area at Romo’s parents’ house.
On the TV Tuesday was the U.S.-Argentina Copa America semifinal. Lionel Messi dominates from the beginning, and Romo’s appreciation for him is unquestioned.
“It’s like playing against Michael Jordan,” Romo told his friends sitting nearby, including Tenhagen and Ryan Hoffman, Burlington’s quarterback before Romo.
The night ends by the fire pit with Joan encouraging everybody to make s’mores.
On Wednesday, another former high school teammate, Paul Bondar, arrives with his wife and family. Scott Scholl, Romo’s center at Eastern Illinois, is there with his wife and family. Andy Vincent, Romo’s backup in college, is also with his wife and family.
In the pool, all the kids play, including Romo’s sons Hawkins and Rivers. Romo and his buddies are all in their 30s. All have children. One of them happens to be the Cowboys’ quarterback, but you would never know it. Here he is, just their friend. He lathers sunscreen on his boys.
As the music plays, a smile comes over Romo’s face.
This is home.
Pizzas from Napoli’s arrive around 5:45. When the local news channel airs its story on Romo’s camp, old footage in his black No. 16 jersey airs.
“Did you see the right side of the line there?” Bondar says, admiring his work from back in the day.
As the sun goes down and the kids go to bed or watch "Despicable Me," the topic outside turns to football. A few years ago Bondar and Tenhagen flew to Cowboys training camp when Dallas coach Jason Garrett had his players talk about the best teams they were on and the relationships that grew from those days. Almost all of Romo’s friends make a game or two during the regular season. Tenhagen was at the heartbreaking divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, as was Romo’s basketball coach, Steve Berezowitz, whose cellphone screen saver is a photo of him and his son, Joey, at the game.
“Oh, yeah, he caught it,” Berezowitz said of Dez Bryant’s overturned reception. “We’re Cowboys fans. We took some heat. We were on the 50-yard line with our Cowboys gear.”
Romo pops open his iPad and shows some plays to his former teammates. He goes into the details of what he was seeing, what he was thinking, why he did what he did. To his friends, it’s the same stuff he did when he wore Burlington’s No. 16.
This is home.
Back at Burlington High on Thursday, Romo darted between fields in a golf cart, watching the 16 teams -- eight from Wisconsin and eight from Illinois -- compete. Hanging on the back of the cart was Justin Penio, another former college teammate who drove over for the day.
After two games and a lunch break, Romo addresses the teams on the field at Don Dalton Stadium. The mic cuts in and out, so he just speaks louder. He talks about Malcolm Gladwell’s "Outliers" and the 10,000-hour rule.
He tells them he never really touched a football until his junior year of high school. He played soccer. Basketball might have been his best sport, but he didn’t start his 10,000 hours for football until much later than everybody else. He figured it took him 10-15 years to get them in.
Now he feels he is playing the best football of his life and is prepared for the best season of his career.
“Find something you love,” Romo told the players, “and wear it out.”
On Field No. 2 South, Mount Horeb (Wisconsin) and Riverside Brookfield (Illinois) are in overtime. The winner goes to the semifinals. On fourth down, Riverside Brookfield completed a short touchdown pass to win. The players went crazy, jumping in unison on the field.
“This is why you’re doing this,” Romo said. “This is awesome.”
Riverside Brookfield made the championship against Barrington High, from a Chicago suburb. At the start of the game, AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck" played from Romo’s iPhone over the loudspeakers. Late in the second half, Romo takes over as play-by-play man. A final heave from Riverside Brookfield is incomplete and Barrington wins 33-30.
That night Romo has arranged for a boat ride on Lake Geneva for all of those who helped with the camp and tournament. It’s become something of a tradition over the years. Friends and family join them. Napoli’s has catered the evening.
Somehow the discussion turns to the best players in NBA history. Romo conducts a makeshift mock draft in which six friends pick their five best players. Romo wants to know which starting five is the best. They argue. They laugh. They joke.
“People get older, but people don’t change,” Scholl said. “Not this group of guys we have. On the deck of the boat, Penio and my wife, Tony’s out there, a couple other guys were there, and I said, ‘What’s funny with this group of guys is that I have that gut laughter that I don’t have with my other friends. When I’m laughing it’s a pure, wholehearted laugh.’
“We have that bond of friendship through that mileage. We’re not close on the map, but we don’t miss a beat.”
This is home.
BURLINGTON, Wis. -- Christian Bass was nine months old when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was too young to participate in the Make-A-Wish program, and by the time he turned 3 he was cancer free.
His parents, Annette and Bill, decided to pass on taking a turn with Make-A-Wish “because we were just happy he was alive,” Annette said. “That’s all that was important.”
On Wednesday, one of Christian’s long-time wishes came true when he met Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. The two shared a talk and some laughs. Romo took some pictures and signed some autographs.
“Before, I was excited but when I met him I was like, ‘He seems like a nice person,’” Christian said. “You would think that they’re just different but when you meet him you know that he’s a nice person.”
Bass, 14, is not cleared to play football but his story is part of why Romo holds a football camp each summer in Burlington, Wisconsin, his hometown. In the morning, middle schoolers learned the finer points of different positions. In the afternoon, close to 300 elementary school kids went through a series of drills and ended the day sharing a high-five with Romo.
“I can remember having that feeling of anytime there was a college football player who played at (Wisconsin-Whitewater), I can remember just hanging on every word because it was such a big deal,” Romo said. “For me, coming back here to talk to the kids, I know it’s a special thing to see someone who went from Burlington High School to the next step to the next step. Sometimes you see them play on TV and I can remember being in awe of anybody in a position like that.
“For me it’s really the opportunity to give back and know that I can teach them a little something about the game. I can talk to them or give them a high-five and I can show them that dreams are possible, that anything is possible. You just have to work at it and love something.”
Bass still has yearly checkups with his doctor, but he recently was cleared to play sports. He played some soccer last year and might give golf a try.
He became a Romo fan when he was around 6 years old.
“I just kind of looked up to him,” Bass said. “He stood out to me.”
The Bass family has divided loyalties. Bill, Christian and sister Vivian are Cowboys fans. Annette and Vivian’s twin, Victoria, are Green Bay Packers fans.
“I don’t know if my heart will switch,” Annette said, “but I won’t say I won’t root for the Cowboys now.”
IRVING, Texas -- Alfred Morris saves money like his roster spot is forever in jeopardy, which makes sense if you think about it.
It's the reason why the four-year veteran still drives his beloved 1991 Mazda 626, which is the kind of car you usually find a high school senior driving.
The car speaks to Morris' mentality: dependable, reliable and consistent.
He's a former sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic who burst onto the NFL scene with 1,613 yards, a 4.8 yards-per-carry average and 13 touchdowns.
But his yards per season and average per carry have decreased each of the past three seasons, culminating with 751 yards and a 3.7 average in 2015.
It marked the first time in Morris’ career he failed to gain 1,000 yards or average 4.0 per carry. And that's part of why the Washington Redskins opted not to re-sign him, which is how he wound up with the Dallas Cowboys.
He signed a two-year deal worth $3.5 million to compete with Darren McFadden for the starting job -- or least share the carries with him.
Then the Cowboys used the fourth pick of the draft on Ezekiel Elliott, reducing the odds that both McFadden and Morris will be on the roster in September.
At least that's how it looked like the situation would play out until McFadden broke his elbow. Now, Morris has an opportunity to solidify his spot on the roster because McFadden will miss about three months.
“You never want anyone to get hurt; I haven’t thought about it as an opportunity because I thought the coaches did a good job splitting our reps and giving everybody an opportunity to showcase what they can do,” Morris said. “With him gone, it doesn’t change much honestly.
“What it does change is that we don’t have our leader in the room -- that savvy vet that’s been doing it for quite some time.”
Coach Jason Garrett likes Morris' approach to practice -- and his approach to the game -- based on watching him play against the Cowboys the past four seasons.
So does the Cowboys’ pro scouting department, which recommended him. To make this roster, though, Morris must improve his grasp of the playbook.
“I feel like they jumbled three or four playbook together, so I’m starting to get it,” Morris said. “I want to get to the point, where I can play a little faster without having to think.
“I have a lot to learn [because] a lot has been thrown at us so I’m studying at home, studying between meetings and things like that.
“The hardest aspect is the protections. You can run the ball and catch the ball, but if you can’t protect the franchise [Tony Romo], then you’re no good to them. You have to be able to cover every scenario, because if you can’t, you’ll find yourself on the bench real fast.”
Running back is one of the deepest positions on the roster, which means it would surprise if Morris made the team, didn’t make the team or was traded just before the season.
Whether he’s playing in Dallas or somewhere else, Morris’ approach to saving money or playing won’t change.
Todd Archer (Cowboys): The Cowboys thought they had the best team in the NFC East in 2007, but the Giants’ pass rush knocked them out of the playoffs. In 2011, the Giants’ pass rush rattled the Cowboys in the de facto NFC East championship game. While I think Vernon is a good player, and he gave Tyron Smith fits last season, I think guaranteeing him $52.5 million is crazy. He had fewer sacks last year than DeMarcus Lawrence. I’ve seen Dez Bryant turn around Janoris Jenkins, who seems to take too many chances at cornerback. Of the three, I think Harrison might be the best signing because the Cowboys want to run the ball first and foremost, and he can hold the fort. Tony Romo has won his past five starts against the Giants. He has been dazzling against them with 14 touchdown passes and five interceptions. He has beaten them with late-game heroics the past two seasons. I don’t think he will fear going against that defense. As much as I think the additions will help New York, this isn’t 2007 or 2011.
Phil Sheridan (Eagles): Major changes like that can go the other way, as the Eagles proved last year (again) after failing to learn a lesson from the “Dream Team” fiasco in 2011. But, certainly, the addition of quality players on the front line and at the back end could make the Giants’ defense that much more difficult to attack. And change is a necessity sometimes. The Eagles averaged 27.7 points and 396 yards per game against the Giants over the past three seasons. Chip Kelly is gone, but it certainly seemed as if the Giants needed to do something.
John Keim (Redskins): I don’t know if they’ll be feared, but they should be improved – and based on the Redskins’ recent success vs. them, perhaps they should be a bit scared. After all, in its past eight meetings vs. New York, Washington has averaged just 16.4 points per game with a high total of 23 – and that came in 2012. And in those eight games, the Redskins have turned the ball over a combined 20 times, including three last season. Kirk Cousins finally had a solid, turnover-free game vs. the Giants in their second meeting last season, a 20-14 victory. But the Giants’ defense clearly knows how to deal with Washington’s offense, and now they’re adding two talented players up front. I’m not sold on Jenkins as some big-time answer – and I know the Redskins had a lot of respect for the man he’s replacing, Prince Amukamara, and thought the Giants had the most physical pair of corners they played. Jenkins misses too many tackles and takes chances; it can pay off, but I think it’ll bite him, too.
PHILADELPHIA -- When he was hired as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Doug Pederson said right away that he believed the team could contend in 2016. This team, Pederson said, has more talent than the 1999 team that Andy Reid inherited (and Pederson played on).
Last week, executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said the Eagles’ offseason might result in a little belt-tightening over the next year or two. The Eagles’ spending in 2016 was about building a core group that could develop into winners over the next few years. It was not about quick fixes that would benefit the team this season.
So which is it? What are the Eagles’ intentions and what are their chances to contend in the NFC East?
That question actually hints at the answer. The Eagles’ intentions may be to build a long-term contender, but the reality of the NFC East is that all four teams have the chance to win the division title in any given year. No team has repeated as division champion since the Eagles in 2003-04.
In that sense, then, the Eagles certainly have a reasonable chance to contend in 2016.
Remember, they were in the tepid NFC East race right up until December, when they lost home games to Arizona and Washington. The second loss gave Washington the division title.
That late-season fade looked bad. It was bad. But the fact remains that the Eagles were competitive until that two-game skid and they still finished ahead of Dallas and the Giants. All of that may say more about the state of the NFC East than the Eagles, but in this case, there’s no difference.
If the NFC East is mediocre, then a mediocre team could win it. So the Eagles, who could be better than mediocre, certainly have a shot.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that any of the three other mediocre teams in the division could also win it. Washington won it last year and has an apparently rising quarterback in Kirk Cousins. But what if Cousins recedes the way Robert Griffin III did (or, more recently, the way Nick Foles did in 2014)? Washington could be 5-11 or 6-10 as easily as 10-6.
Dallas? The Cowboys were in good shape going into 2015. They had won the division in 2014 and had added pieces to their offensive and defensive lines. But Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks broke Tony Romo's collarbone and all bets were off. The Cowboys went 4-12.
But if Romo and Dez Bryant stay healthy in 2016, there is every reason to believe the Cowboys can run away with the division title. If Romo gets hurt again, then the Cowboys could fall apart again. It’s that simple.
The Giants are even more of a mystery than the Eagles. Tom Coughlin had coached them for so long, and had won two Super Bowls, that the team is bound to be very different. If new coach Ben McAdoo can jump-start the team, the Giants could very well be contenders. If the team stumbles in its first steps under McAdoo, it could be another long season for Giants fans.
The Eagles are similar. They re-signed Sam Bradford in order to give themselves a chance to be competitive in 2016. If Bradford thrives in Pederson’s offense -- and two years removed from his ACL surgery -- the Eagles could be better than expected. If Jim Schwartz’s defense gets more out of the talent on hand than Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme, the Eagles could be much better.
Factor in the advantages of running a standard NFL offense instead of Chip Kelly’s no-huddle scheme, and the Eagles could improve as the season goes on.
There are pitfalls, of course. The lack of weapons on offense, especially at the wide receiver position, could hamstring Pederson’s offense. The transition to a new defense could expose the annually rebuilt secondary. We still have no idea whether Pederson was immune to Andy Reid’s game management idiosyncracies.
The bottom line is that it can be discouraging to go into a season marked entirely as a rebuilding year. The Eagles aren’t putting their fans through that. They took steps to build a long-term winner, but also steps to improve the 2015 team in the short term.
There are no guarantees, but there’s a chance.
PHILADELPHIA -- The question, as the Philadelphia Eagles committed millions of guaranteed dollars to players old and new, was whether the team would have the salary cap space to get a deal done with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
Well, they did.
And now the question becomes whether the Eagles can still maneuver around the cap as needs arise over the next couple of years. And the answer to that is not as clear as the answer to the first question.
Money decisions in the NFL have been based on the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise each year. At some point, that trend will end. But for now, Eagles executive vice president for football operations Howie Roseman was able to structure contracts to fit the escalating cap numbers.
Roseman handed out a league-high $280 million in guaranteed money since Jan. 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He spread that money out to current players -- Cox, Sam Bradford, Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz and others -- as well as to new players. Free agents Brandon Brooks, Chase Daniel, Rodney McLeod and Leodis McKelvin all received significant deals this year.
The Eagles have about $6 million in cap space for 2016. In 2017, however, they currently are $5.7 million over the projected salary cap. That is a problem.
“That requires some risk on our part,” Roseman said last week. “But as we look at what our team looks like going forward, and the second part of this is obviously we don't have as many draft picks as we've had. So knowing that we have holes filled and we do look at our 2018 depth chart, we do look at our 2019 depth chart, we knew that we had to get a little uncomfortable for this season and next season, really, to build something that hopefully lasts and gives us a chance at being a really good team again for a long period of time.”
Being over the cap a year before they have to do another round of contracts is certainly “a little uncomfortable.”
Ultimately, though, there is a pretty simple solution to the Eagles’ problem. And that solution involves Bradford.
The Eagles signed the quarterback to a two-year, $35 million contract back in March. They also signed Daniel, a free agent who played for Doug Pederson in Kansas City. They then made trades to move up and draft Carson Wentz with the No. 2 pick in the draft. The official line has been that Bradford will be the starter this season. If he plays well -- let’s say he takes the Eagles to the playoffs -- then he could earn the job for 2017, as well. If Bradford emerges as an elite quarterback, the Eagles could always choose to sign him to another deal after this one expires.
But the official line doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. Bradford’s salary-cap charge for 2017 is $22.5 million. If the Eagles release him, Bradford will still count for $9.5 million in dead money on their 2017 cap, but the Eagles would save $13 million in cap space. Instead of being $5.7 million over the cap, they would instantly be $7.3 under the 2017 salary cap. They also have no first-round draft pick to pay in 2017. So cutting Bradford would give them enough flexibility to do business.
Cutting left tackle Jason Peters, who will be 35 in 2017, would save the Eagles another $9 million in cap space. The Eagles would then need to replace Peters, but the point is they can free up significant cap space with just a couple of transactions.
So the answer is yes, the Cox contract pushed the Eagles near their limit in terms of cap space. But they also have some built-in escape hatches that can be used if needed.
The salary-cap situation after the Cox deal makes it seem almost certain that Bradford will be gone after the 2016 season.
Additionally, the Eagles did draft Wentz with the No. 2 pick for a reason. It’s unusual enough for highly drafted rookies to sit for a season. Sitting for two seasons is virtually unheard of.
Roseman spent a lot of money on his offseason plan. But there is more money to be spent, if needed, over the next couple years.
Today's question: Should the Washington Redskins be viewed as an up-and-coming team or just a one-year aberration?
Todd Archer, Cowboys: Even as Washington was winning the division last season and Kirk Cousins was telling everybody, "You like that," I was skeptical. I’m still skeptical. The NFC East was a mess last year, and I saw the Redskins lose at home to the Dallas Cowboys with Matt Cassel at quarterback. I saw Kellen Moore throw for more than 400 yards against Washington, too. Granted, the Redskins pulled a lot of their regulars, but it didn’t leave me thinking they were a team on the rise. Cousins had a tremendous season in 2015, but can he do it again? I like the addition of Josh Norman. I think first-round pick Josh Doctson can be a star. I just don’t know if the Redskins have the line play to sustain long-term success. I don’t know if they are a one-year aberration because the division remains weak, but I wouldn’t make them the favorites going into 2016.
Phil Sheridan, Eagles: The trend in the division suggests the latter. No NFC East team has won the division in back-to-back seasons since the Philadelphia Eagles did it in 2003 and 2004. But when you look at the way Scot McCloughan is running the show in Washington, you get the feeling the team is being built for sustained success. Obviously, so much depends on Kirk Cousins. A few years ago, you might have been asking a similar question after Robert Griffin III led Washington to the 2012 NFC East title. The competition should improve -- especially if Tony Romo can stay healthy and if the Giants' defense is better -- but Washington has the look and feel of a team that will contend.
Dan Graziano, Giants: The 2015 loss that annoyed the New York Giants the most was the one in Washington. Their defense hasn’t had a lot of success overall in recent years, but they firmly believe they know how to beat Washington, as they had five times in a row before that post-Thanksgiving defeat last year. Kirk Cousins has eight interceptions and just three touchdown passes in four career games against the Giants, who remain confident in their ability to catch him in mistakes by forcing him to throw downfield. Cousins may have turned a corner last year and become more consistent and reliable, but my sense is that the Giants are going to have to see it first-hand a few more times before they believe it.
The Washington Redskins open training camp on July 28 in Richmond, Virginia. Here's our 53-man roster projection:
These are the only quarterbacks who will be in camp and the order is clearly established. Cousins will start, McCoy is the primary backup and Sudfeld is the rookie draft pick to develop. They like him enough that they won’t risk putting him on the practice squad.
The first three are rather easy to pick -- Jones is the starter, Thompson the top backup and Marshall the draft pick. Kelly flashed in shorts and a helmet in the spring and will enter camp as the No. 4 back. Now he must hold onto the position ahead of Mack Brown. The Redskins could sign a veteran (Pierre Thomas likely will still be available) after the first week as well. Also, there’s no fullback, but tight end Niles Paul can play there when needed.
The only newcomer would be Doctson. The starters will be Garcon and Jackson with Crowder in the slot. Just because Doctson is in town doesn’t mean Crowder’s time will decrease. The Redskins could use a three-receiver set minus Crowder, but that’s not a formation they want to use much simply because they love how the second-year receiver developed this spring. Grant and Ross both need to show more development, but as of now it's hard to say who'd nudge them aside.
I did not list Derek Carrier here because of his health. He’ll likely have to open camp on the physically unable to perform list after tearing multiple ligaments in December. If he’s healthy, it’ll be an interesting call on his roster spot, but that likely will occur during the season. He’s more of a receiver; if Davis shows he can help as a blocker then it could eventually come down to Paulsen or Carrier. The hope by some is that Carrier will be ready before the midway point of the season. I’m guessing the Redskins would like to keep Marcel Jensen around as long as possible on the practice squad.
I’d prefer nine, but versatility -- if Long shows he can play center, for example -- gives them options and I think they can use the practice squad to keep more around. Lauvao is the wild card because of his health but they really like him. The Redskins like what they’ve seen from Kouandjio and Long at left guard in case Lauvao can’t play. Long's ability to play center will help determine Josh LeRibeus' fate. I can see Austin Reiter and Takoby Cofield, among others, being signed to the practice squad.
I think seven might be pushing it given the amount of nickel they play, but each of these players have a role. With the focus on versatility, the Redskins can use all of these players, while Ioannidis goes inactive on game day. Ziggy Hood could make life interesting for one of these players if he follows up a solid spring with a strong showing in August. But, for now, it's hard to put him ahead of others on this list.
This will be an interesting position. Perry Riley is not a lock to make the roster. Foster can start and Riley’s foot injury and inability to practice this offseason is concerning. I liked how he played next to Compton before his injury, but I wonder if he’ll be healthy enough to beat out Foster – and then you’d have a $5 million backup who does not excel on special teams. That's why, until we see what he has left, it's tough for me to keep him around. Jefferson is my surprise pick as an outside linebacker, but he has quickness and length and just might sneak onto the roster ahead of Houston Bates. Rookie Steven Daniels, a seventh-round pick, heads to the practice squad.
The only real surprise here is Phillips, but he was a spring standout and they are excited about his progress. Now he must prove it in camp. But even if he doesn’t end up as the starting nickel corner, he showed that he might be worth developing as a backup/special-teamer. I’d keep a safety or two on the practice squad because the Redskins always need more.
This was the easiest one to call considering the Redskins have no other options in camp. The Redskins like all three quite a bit and, with competition desired elsewhere, they didn’t need to waste a roster spot with false battles.
The Dallas Cowboys wrapped up their offseason program Thursday and will open training camp July 28 in Oxnard, California. Here’s a 53-man roster projection:
The Cowboys could look for a more veteran backup if Moore does not progress. Jameill Showers faces an uphill battle to stick simply because Prescott was a fourth-round pick.
McFadden’s broken elbow could keep him off the practice field for most of training camp and scuttles any potential trade possibilities. Rookie Darius Jackson, a sixth-round pick, has some skills that might be worth developing, so he could stick as well. Lance Dunbar will open the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list as he comes back from a knee injury.
FULLBACK (1): Rod Smith
Smith makes the team because the Cowboys are light at tailback, where he can fill in, and he can play every special-teams group. He is battling with Keith Smith for the fullback role and it is entirely possible the Cowboys don’t carry one on the 53-man roster going into the season.
I contemplated a sixth receiver (Andy Jones) here, especially with Williams and Butler set to be free agents after the season, but opted against it. Derek Dooley said the core of receivers is as strong as they’ve been since he’s been the coach, so five should be enough.
Where’s Rico Gathers? He simply has too far to go. I think he’ll be on the practice squad. Why keep four tight ends? Escobar, who deserves praise for his rehab from a torn Achilles, is entering the final year of his deal and Swaim can play multiple spots.
Leary could become trade bait as well, but the Cowboys won’t give him away. He’s a starter and if the Cowboys suffer an injury they would love to have Leary ready to go. I opted to go with Brown as the ninth linemen right now because Green still has a long way to go.
Randy Gregory is not listed because he will miss the first four games because of a suspension. DeMarcus Lawrence is not listed because he is facing the same penalty, but the NFL has not ruled on his appeal. This group is thin. I could see the Cowboys adding two or three players before the final cuts to bolster the group even if it would just be for the first month. Russell has the most to gain. If he can gain the coaches’ confidence, he could stick but I don’t think he enters camp as a lock even if he worked with the first team in the spring
Do I think the Cowboys are in lock-step with McClain? No. He could be a surprise cut, but I believe he is a Jerry Jones’ favorite. Nzeocha, who missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury, bears some watching this summer. He could be a big special-teamer and find himself playing multiple linebacker spots.
You might not like it but the top three are set. The fourth and fifth corner jobs are wide open. Brown is getting work inside and outside. Olatoye was a starter at the end of last season and has good size. Jeremiah McKinnon, an undrafted free agent, has a chance. So does veteran Josh Thomas. I don’t see them keeping six because in a pinch they could move Byron Jones to corner.
This might be my biggest surprise: no J.J. Wilcox. He is going into the last year of his deal and counting $1.8 million against the cap. Church is also entering the final year of his deal and will make $4.25 million this year. That’s a lot of money but his dependability gives him an edge. The Cowboys made a financial commitment to Heath, their best special-teamer. They drafted Frazier in the sixth round and like his athleticism. He has a future, while Wilcox looks like he would be gone after this season.
Same as it ever was.
The Philadelphia Eagles wrapped up their offseason program on June 9 and open training camp on July 25 at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia. Here’s a 53-man roster projection:
They’re the only three quarterbacks on the 90-man roster and they’ve received a ton of guaranteed money, so this was not a tough call.
Marshall projects as a younger version of Kenjon Barner, so it makes more sense for the Eagles to keep him. It won’t be shocking if the team goes with three backs here, which would make Marshall a candidate for the practice squad.
It is possible one of the rookie wide receivers – Xavier Rush seemed to find a connection with Wentz at minicamp – displaces Huff, but the Eagles’ wide receiver corps appears set. Not particularly imposing, but set.
That’s a lot of tight ends, but Pantale could also be counted as a fullback. He looked good in OTAs and minicamp as a tight end, and the Eagles used some three-tight end sets.
Maybe the toughest unit to project. It could be that Malcolm Bunche, Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai play their way onto the roster. The logic here is that Gardner, Tobin and Wisniewski can play multiple positions, which will give them value as backups.
The Eagles would like Alex McAlister, a seventh-round draft pick this year, to make the team. But they also want him to add weight, which suggests he could be stashed on the practice squad for a year. Braman is here for special teams.
It wouldn’t be all that surprising if one of the undrafted rookies forced his way onto the roster, but for now, logic suggests the four most likely candidates will wind up on the team.
Deontae Skinner has shown some promise during his time here, and the coaches like Tavarres and Quentin Gause. Once you get past the starters, the three backups are basically a coin flip, with special-teams acumen playing a large role in the decisions.
The Eagles desperately need this group to develop into a solid unit behind Jim Schwartz’s aggressive defensive front. Mills has looked very good in practice. Same with McKelvin, who played for Schwartz in Buffalo. Shepherd is a projection based on his play before tearing his ACL last year.
The starters are set. Maragos is a solid backup who excels on special teams. The fourth spot is really a toss-up. We’re going with Watkins here because he can also play cornerback.
Strangely, two of the most intense competitions for roster spots are at kicker and long-snapper. Howie Roseman was in charge when the Eagles traded for Parkey, and that clearly matters in these situations. John DePalma may well outplay Dorenbos, but don’t expect the veteran to go quietly.
The New York Giants wrapped up their offseason program Thursday and open training camp on July 28 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here’s a 53-man roster projection.
Running backs (4): Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Shane Vereen, Paul Perkins. Tough break for Orleans Darkwa, but as much as fans may want to move on from Williams, it's tough to see the Giants giving up on a draft pick after two years.
Fullback (1): Will Johnson. This would mean no more Nikita Whitlock, who played defensive tackle in addition to fullback last year. But Johnson can play tight end and move all over the formation. His versatility earns him the job.
Wide receivers (6): Odell Beckham Jr., Dwayne Harris, Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz, Myles White, Geremy Davis. Lots of cutting going on here, as the Giants currently have 13 wideouts on their roster. Undrafted Roger Lewis could steal a spot from White or Davis in camp, and Cruz's health also could open up another spot.
Offensive line (9): Weston Richburg, Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, John Jerry, Marshall Newhouse, Bobby Hart, Ryan Seymour, Byron Stingily, Shane McDermott. Obviously, if they add Eugene Monroe in free agency, that's bad news for Stingily, who's on this list for now as one potential swing tackle from the current roster.
Defensive line (9): Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Johnathan Hankins, Jay Bromley, Owa Odighizuwa, Ishaq Williams, Kerry Wynn, Louis Nix. The last backup defensive tackle spot could go to Montori Hughes instead of Nix. Williams has been impressing coaches during spring workouts.
Linebackers (7): Keenan Robinson, Jasper Brinkley, Jonathan Casillas, J.T. Thomas, Devon Kennard, Mark Herzlich, B.J. Goodson. Kennard's or Thomas' health could open a spot elsewhere on the roster, and Brinkley could be in jeopardy if Robinson seizes the middle linebacker job. But everyone else here is safe.
Cornerbacks (5): Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Trevin Wade, Donte Deayon. Don't be surprised to see the Giants add a body or two here as they need to find someone to handle the slot.
Safety (4): Landon Collins, Darian Thompson, Bennett Jackson, Cooper Taylor. The problem here continues to be health and inexperience. Nat Berhe and Mykkele Thompson are already hurt, as is Taylor, who gets this last spot by default. If all three are hurt again, Justin Currie could make the roster and they could add from the outside as they did year ago.
Kicker (1): Josh Brown. No brainer.
Punter (1): Brad Wing. Sure thing.
Long-snapper (1): Zak DeOssie. They do like Tyler Ott, who will go to camp to compete for this job. But as there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, there must always be a DeOssie in East Rutherford.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles have handed out an NFL-high $280 million in guaranteed money this offseason, most of it to extend the contracts of their own players.
That was no accident. Howie Roseman, the former general manager displaced last year by head coach Chip Kelly, is back in command. Now executive vice president of football operations, Roseman had a plan for securing the Eagles’ core players while trying to build on that base.
“Looking at our whole offseason,” Roseman said, “having all these guys that we’ve drafted or have signed in here and fit our system, our style, in our opinion, that’s the message of the offseason.
“When you look at the majority of guys that we’ve signed, they’re second-contract guys. They’re 25 or 26. ... When you look at the Giants, the Steelers, the Colts, the Patriots, the Packers, the Seahawks -- they have a core group of guys that they’re building with together. They’re going through things together that strengthens your team and strengthens your bond.”
The biggest contract of the offseason took the longest to finalize. Roseman and agent Todd France completed negotiations Monday on a six-year, $103 million contract for defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
At 25, the 2012 first-round draft pick exactly fits the profile Roseman was talking about.
“I think it says a lot when they’re signing the guys that are in that locker room,” Cox said. “They believe in the guys that are in the locker room. They want to continue to grow with them and continue to build around them.”
Roseman acknowledged that the 2015 Eagles were, at 7-9, a disappointment.
“We didn’t exactly win the Super Bowl,” Roseman said.
But his belief is that keeping a promising core group together and adding to it is the right way to build a championship-caliber team.
Earlier in the offseason, the Eagles negotiated new contracts with tight ends Zach Ertz (five years, $42.5 million, $21 million guaranteed) and Brent Celek (two years, $8 million, $6 million guaranteed), offensive tackle Lane Johnson (five years, $56.25 million, $35.5 million guaranteed), defensive end Vinny Curry (five years, $46.25 million, $23 million guaranteed) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (four years, $30 million, $21 million guaranteed).
All except for Jenkins are players the Eagles drafted. They also negotiated a two-year contract extension with quarterback Sam Bradford ($35 million, $22 million guaranteed).
There had been “so much change here” during Kelly’s three-year tenure, Roseman said. “One of the things when you’re trying to build something, you need people to be secure in how they feel.”
That’s why, Roseman said, he and head coach Doug Pederson were consistent in their public statements about Cox. They may have given up some leverage, but they said all along that they wanted Cox to remain an Eagle for a long time.
“We didn’t want him to feel at any point to feel other than how we truly felt,” Roseman said. “He is a huge part of what we’re trying to build and trying to do. A lot of that is not only on the field but off the field and how he handles himself.”