PHILADELPHIA -- There are two ways to look at this one. When Tony Dungy compares Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, you might think, “Great! Rodgers was taken 24th in the 2005 NFL draft! The Eagles can get Mariota at No. 20 this year.”

Rodgers
Mariota
On the other hand, of course, it is true that Rodgers’ slide to the latter part of the first round is looked back on as one of the more embarrassing miscalculations by NFL teams. Maybe not as bad as Russell Wilson going in the third round to Seattle in 2012, but pretty close.

According to JoeBucsFan.com, Dungy dismissed critics who say that Mariota is entirely a product of Oregon’s system.

"They said the same thing about Aaron Rodgers, and he went late in the first round [that] year,” Dungy said. “And the feeling was that Alex Smith was a little more ready. I think Marcus will adapt and he’ll be fine."

Dungy has more than a passing interest. His son Eric is a wide receiver at Oregon. Dungy has seen Mariota play a lot more than he has watched Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the other top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft.

"If I watched Jameis as much, and knew as much about him, I’d probably have a similar opinion,” Dungy said. “But I just think Marcus is going to be sensational in the NFL."

As sensational as Rodgers, which is pretty sensational.

“I think Marcus has a lot of the same skill set,” Dungy said. “He has the same drive and determination. I just really think the world of him as a person. I just think he’s special.”

Dungy has advised Eagles head coach Chip Kelly about hiring a personnel adviser. There isn’t much need for Dungy to lobby Kelly on the potential of Mariota. Kelly said in December that Mariota is “the most talented” player he coached during his years in college.

The Eagles’ chances of drafting Mariota are obviously not very good. The team with the best chance to take him is Dungy’s former employers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers hold the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft.

It may be more popular in Tampa to draft the Florida State star. But no team wants to be the one that passed on the chance to get a talent like Aaron Rodgers. There were 23 of those teams in 2005.

 
PHILADELPHIA – There seems to be a lot of handwringing about the Philadelphia Eagles’ salary cap and its possible impact on the team’s 2015 roster. As Aaron Rodgers would say, “Relax.”

It is possible that Chip Kelly will decideJeremy Maclin is not worth the estimated $12 million salary he would get if the Eagles place the franchise tag on him. It is also possible that Kelly will seek to reduce LeSean McCoy’s cap number, which is just under $12 million. There is always the possibility Kelly will decide to go cheaper at both positions and move on from the two veterans.

Maclin
McCoy
But Kelly will not be forced to do either of those things because of the Eagles’ salary-cap situation. That’s a point that Kelly himself made the day after the season ended.

“I think since I've been here, one of the attractive things about this job, there are not cap issues,” Kelly said. “You don't look at it and go, ‘Oh, my God. We're going to have to cut 12 players because we're going to be $40 million over the cap.’ “

The 2015 NFL salary cap is expected to be about $140 million. The Eagles are already under that number, but still have a fair numbers of roster spots to fill. Maclin, as one example, does not count under their 2015 cap because he simply doesn’t have a 2015 contract yet.

The Eagles also can create a lot more cap space if they choose to do so. Several players with large cap numbers – McCoy, Trent Cole ($11.65 million), DeMeco Ryans ($6.9 million), Cary Williams ($8.17 million), Riley Cooper ($4.8 million), Brent Celek ($4.8 million), James Casey ($4 million), Todd Herremans ($5.2 million), Evan Mathis ($6.5 million) – could be in line for restructured deals that convert salary to bonus money. Some could be released.

The key point is this: The Eagles’ leading rusher and leading receiver, McCoy and Maclin, are not in danger for salary cap reasons. Kelly could choose to allot their salary cap space in other ways, but that would be his choice.

The Eagles signed McCoy’s deal in May 2012, just three years ago. All McCoy has done since is rush for 3,166 yards despite missing four games in 2012. He led the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards in 2013 and, despite injuries along the offensive line, was third in the league in 2014.

Given that production and his age (McCoy is 26), if his salary cap number is too high for 2015 then the Eagles agreed to a terrible contract.

The real reason the Eagles’ cap is so flexible isn’t so much astute cap management as it is the lack of a market-value quarterback on the roster. In Dallas, for instance, Tony Romo’s $27.7 million cap number in 2015 consumes 21.2 percent of the Cowboys’ entire salary cap. Nick Foles and Matt Barkley combined consume 1.17 percent of the Eagles’ salary cap for 2015.

Maclin has a choice in free agency, unless the Eagles choose to use the franchise tag. The Eagles have the rights to McCoy and no pressing financial reason to relinquish them. That’s the bottom line here.
Former Oakland receiver Tim Brown knows Bill Callahan well, having played for him, and has been exposed to Robert Griffin III in Heisman settings. While he likes Callahan as a position coach, he had little good to say about Griffin from his limited exposure.

First, his take on Griffin because it was harsh. Take it for what it’s worth: The opinion of one person’s interaction. But I do wonder if others in that Heisman fraternity view it the same way. Anyway here’s what Brown, a guest on ESPN980 Thursday, said about Griffin:

“I know RG3 well enough to know he’s a little different. He’s maybe not the brother you hang out with in the locker room, but from that standpoint that’s something he has to work on. If he’s going to be a leader he has to be a leader of everyone in the locker room and not just one or two guys in the locker room.”

Griffin
When asked how Griffin hung out with the other Heisman guys, Brown said, “He’s tough. He’s a different guy. There’s no laughter, there’s no let me get in here with the boys. Everyone’s telling jokes with each other and you say something to him and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, really?’ Instead of taking it further what happens is that everyone is like he’s not in the room yet so you end up talking around him the whole time and that’s not cool. Everyone else is in here having fun and having a jovial time. That’s something he has to understand. This is a team sport. If it was golf, brother, I’d say go for it. But if you play a team sport and want to be a leader of a team sport, you have to loosen up a little bit.”

My take: Griffin is not the most interactive guy in the Redskins locker room, either (he will do so on occasion, but mostly hangs at his locker). Just an observation. But I’ve also seen him introduce himself to practice-squad players, something I’ve never seen other high-profile players do (in the locker room at least). But it’s impossible for me to comment on the situation Brown describes without being in there or knowing Griffin’s comfort level in those settings. Is it being awkward? Respectful? Do other young kids join in the jokes? Don’t know. Still, it’s Browns only exposure to him. Brown also talked about how different quarterback Rich Gannon was as well when they played together and not always the most popular. Gannon starred with the Raiders.

As far as Callahan, Brown played six years for Callahan (four when he was the offensive coordinator and two as a head coach).

“I would say this and I mean this sincerely, I thought Bill Callahan was the best X and O coach I’ve ever been around. His ability to draw plays in the dirt on the sideline and get us out of situations and what he did with the offensive line at that time was amazing. I just think when it came to making big decisions he had a difficult time. He belongs as a position coach, not as a head coach. It was too big of a gig for him, but he’s a smart guy. You can’t be a coach in the NFL at that position and not be a smart guy. That’s all I’ll say about Bill Callahan.”
One of the main arguments for Charles Haley to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the same as it has been the past few years: He is the only player to own five Super Bowl rings.

For the Dallas Cowboys, however, he was the missing piece. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said on numerous occasions the Cowboys could not spell Super Bowl without Haley. He arrived in a trade from the San Francisco 49ers in 1992 and the Cowboys won three of the next four Super Bowls. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year twice (1990, '94) and was voted to the Pro Bowl five times. He earned All-Pro honors, first as an outside linebacker with the Niners and as a defensive end with the Cowboys.

With a defensive line that was loaded with talent, Haley did not play every snap, but he played the most important snaps. He brought a nasty demeanor to the Cowboys' defense that made it one of the best groups in the NFL.

The most important part of any résumé should be winning, and Haley won. He has the Super Bowl rings to prove it. His teams won 10 division titles in 12 years and he played in six conference championship games in a seven-year span.

This is the sixth time Haley has been a Hall of Fame finalist. Maybe his wait will finally come to an end on Saturday.
For the first time in the process, Jimmy Johnson will have his name bandied in a room full of Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.

He faces long odds as a first-timer on the ballot. He is one of three coaches up for discussion with Don Coryell and Tony Dungy.

He has more Super Bowl wins than either coach, but Coryell is considered one of the finest offensive minds in NFL history and Dungy had longer success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts.

But what Johnson accomplished with the Dallas Cowboys is worthy of the discussion. He took over in difficult circumstances after Jerry Jones purchased the team in 1989, replacing a legend in Tom Landry and inheriting a roster void of talent. The Cowboys went 1-15 in his first year.

By his fourth season, the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII and were the envy of the league. The Herschel Walker trade changed the Cowboys' route to success. Johnson's knowledge of the college football landscape helped the Cowboys find talent in almost every round of the draft.

In 1993, Johnson helped the Cowboys repeat as Super Bowl champions, something that had happened just six times previously.

There would be no chance for three straight Super Bowl wins. The relationship between Jones and Johnson deteriorated badly, and Johnson was out of the game until returning as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 1996.

He remains the second-winningest coach in Cowboys history with a 44-36 regular-season record. He went 7-1 in the playoffs, but there is a hint of wonder regarding both of those marks had Jones and Johnson been able to work through their issues.

Maybe if they had, Johnson would already be enshrined.
PHILADELPHIA – LeSean McCoy's body tells him one thing. His contract may be saying something else.

There has been a lot of speculation that McCoy’s future with the Philadelphia Eagles could be in doubt because of his contract. McCoy is due to make $9.75 million in 2015, with a salary cap hit of $11.95 million. His cap number drops by $3 million in 2016.

McCoy
In a conversation with Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, broadcast on NBC Sports Radio, McCoy said he didn’t expect the contract to spur the Eagles to release him.

“I don’t feel like that,” McCoy told Florio. “I really don’t. The type of player that I am, the teammate, how I feel about my franchise and what I mean to them -- I’ve got a great relationship with my coaches and teammates. That’s not in my mindset that it would happen to me. But it’s a business. Anything can happen.”

The Eagles and McCoy could restructure the deal to lower the cap charge. But if there is reason to release a 26-year-old running back, that means it’s a poorly conceived contract. And the Eagles were half responsible for that.

McCoy won’t turn 27 until July. He led the NFL in rushing in 2013. His numbers were down in 2014, but that was largely due to injuries along the Eagles’ offensive line. McCoy still finished third in the NFL with 1,319 rushing yards.

“When the standards are really high,” McCoy said, “when you set the mark at a certain level, I can understand (the perception that he had a down year). I like it like that. Next year, when I do it again, they’ll be back on me.”

McCoy said he had a “little knee injury” from the season finale against the Giants. It kept him from the Pro Bowl but is not bothering him now, he said.
Florio asked how many more seasons McCoy has in him.

“I think I’ve got a good four dominant years like I’ve been playing, production-wise,” McCoy said. “But we’ll see.”

McCoy’s contract runs through 2017. It pays him $6.9 million in 2016 and $7.6 million in 2017.
PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Foles has heard the talk. While he was working out in Philadelphia, it would have been impossible for Foles to avoid the speculation that the Eagles covet Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Foles
“I just don’t think about it,” Foles said Thursday in an appearance on "Pro Football Talk Live" on NBC Radio. “It’s definitely going to be brought up. It’s been brought to my attention many times, because that’s just part of it. You’re going to have family members see it; you’re going to be asked about it. I haven’t heard anything otherwise. I expect to be back in Philly and leading my teammates.”

Foles did the Radio Row rounds in Phoenix. He told PFT host Mike Florio that his recovery from a broken collarbone was going well.

“Feels great,” Foles said. “I’ve really been training hard. Rehab was going great in Philly. I’m just continuing to progress. I have to wait a little while to be back on the field because it’s the offseason for us. But I can’t wait to be out there and ready to go.”

That echoes what Foles said in his one news conference with the Philadelphia media after the season ended. He has made a point of stressing that he plans to remain the Eagles’ leader.

But part of the reason for the speculation about Mariota is Foles’ performance in 2014. He earned the starting job by throwing 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 2013. In eight starts in 2014, Foles threw 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.

The Eagles went 6-2 in Foles’ starts, however.

“I just wasn’t executing as well,” Foles told Florio. “Each year, teams get more information on you and make it tougher and tougher. I definitely had a few more interceptions than I would like and turnovers, but it comes down to winning the games. No matter what, if you do have interceptions, you can’t let that defeat you. That’s always been my mindset.

“That’s the team’s mindset. If I throw an interception during a game – which did happen – when I come to the sideline, the defense would say, 'I have your back, I’m going to get the ball back.’ They would either stop them or get the ball back for us. We’d go back and score. That’s what team football is all about.”

Cowboys position reviews: LBs

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
2:00
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Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.

Lee
Carter
Carter
McClain
Under contract: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Dekoda Watson, Kyle Wilber, Cam Lawrence, Keith Smith, Will Smith
Free agents: Bruce Carter, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant, James Anderson

A look back: It started out poorly last May when Lee was lost for the season because of a knee injury. He was their best playmaker on defense and the heart of the unit. It just added a question to a defense full of questions.

Throughout the season, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus mixed and matched his guys because of injuries, but as a group the linebackers performed well.

McClain was picked up in a next-to-nothing trade with the Baltimore Ravens and finished second on the team in tackles despite missing three games. Durant was having his best season before it ended because of injury. Carter was maddening at times, but led the Cowboys with five interceptions and played better down the stretch.

Hitchens proved to be a jack of all trades, starting games at all three linebacker spots. He finished with 100 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown. When he was picked, the Cowboys hoped the fourth-rounder could be a serviceable backup to Lee and play special teams. Wilber also had some moments in spot duty as a strongside linebacker.

A look ahead: Lee will be back in 2015, which is good news, but the rest of the group is in a state of flux because of free agency.

If the Cowboys re-sign McClain, then Lee can play the weakside spot. If not, he will return to his middle linebacker spot. It will be difficult to define how much McClain is worth because this was the first time he has had success at this level. The Cowboys got lucky with him and he might realize this is a good spot for him to remain and not just go to the highest bidder in free agency.

Carter and Durant are also interesting studies. Carter has all the athletic ability in the world, but there are stretches of play where you wonder how much he likes football. Durant was lighting it up but has durability concerns. Carter turns 27 next month. Durant turns 30 in September.

Hitchens showed incredible toughness playing through a high ankle sprain late in the season that earned him points throughout the organization. Is he a full-time starter or a fill-in replacement? What’s his best spot? It might be the Will linebacker, but he has some natural middle linebacker skills, too.

A look out: If they are unable to keep their free agents – or unwilling, depending on price level – the Cowboys have to find help.

Without McClain, Carter or Durant, the starters going into the season would be Lee, Hitchens and Wilber and plenty of questions with the depth. The answers would likely be low-cost free agents, such as Durant two years ago, and the draft, such as Hitchens in 2014. They had better be able to run and rally to the ball. That's what made the group successful in 2014.

McClain was a Pro Bowl alternate. With a full offseason of work and another year in the system, his play should improve. Putting him and Lee on the field together could give the Cowboys their best 4-3 linebacker pairing since Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen.

In Eberflus, the Cowboys have a coach who can develop players and teach new pickups on the fly. He might be a coordinator of the future for another team because he knows the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
PHILADELPHIA -- The danger signs are everywhere. It will be entirely up to Chip Kelly to avoid them and make this new order work in the Philadelphia Eagles' front office.

Kelly convinced Eagles owner Jeff Lurie that he could coach the team and handle all the important duties of a general manager, as well. Lurie shoved GM Howie Roseman aside and handed control of the football operation to Kelly. The first order of business was hiring someone to serve as Kelly’s lead man on personnel.

Kelly will make the big decisions: who to draft, which free agents to go after, which current Eagles to bring back. What he needed was someone to gather and organize all the relevant information and present it in a way Kelly could quickly process and interpret.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesChip Kelly will handle all the important duties of a general manager for the Philadelphia Eagles, and the team has promoted Ed Marynowitz, 30, to serve as Kelly's lead man on personnel decisions.
If Kelly had full control of what to eat for dinner, his new hire had to write the menu every night.

By promoting Ed Marynowitz, who was already working for the team, Kelly minimized some of the risks. A more experienced executive from another team might take a while to get in line with Kelly’s vision for team-building. That can lead to misunderstandings and disagreements, which are always dangerous in such volatile relationships.

On the other hand, Kelly has been in the NFL for all of two years. Last year, he told draft-day stories about himself, making light of his own unfamiliarity with the process. Kelly said he suggested drafting Oregon defensive end Taylor Hart in the third round. Roseman, more familiar with the draft’s inner workings, assured the coach that Hart would be there in the fifth round.

He was. The Eagles took him. Hart was inactive for all 16 games of the 2014 season. He didn’t look like much of a fifth-round pick. He would have been a disastrous third-round selection.

Can Marynowitz fill that role? He has been in the NFL for all of three seasons. At 30, he is young enough to be Kelly’s son. Will he be able to tell the coach he’s about to make a mistake? Will Kelly listen? It is worrisome that the guy who did that last year was no longer able to work with Kelly.

The Eagles went through all of this back in 2001. Tom Modrak was the director of football operations when the team hired Andy Reid as head coach in 1999. After a couple years, Reid sought control of the player personnel decisions. Modrak had a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave the team for another job. As a tradeoff, the Eagles were also allowed to dismiss Modrak during the same window.

The Eagles used that option to let Modrak go. They gave Reid full control of the football operation. Sound familiar? Reid hired 33-year-old Tom Heckert to be his top personnel advisor.

The arrangement worked pretty well for a while. With Reid and Heckert collaborating, the Eagles went the NFC Championship Game after the next four seasons. They got to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season.

It worked because Reid trusted Heckert and listened to him. Reid made the final decisions, but he also knew what he didn’t know. Heckert did the groundwork and Reid relied on that to make his decisions.

That explains the quote from Marynowitz that was included in the Eagles’ news release about the move.

"We intend to build a collaborative and competitive work environment with our coaches, one built upon trust and respect with a focus on winning," Marynowitz said. "Our goal as a personnel department will be to develop a detailed process to maximize each segment of the scouting calendar in order to support and execute Chip’s vision."

That is the objective. Marynowitz understands his part in the process. But nothing he does will matter much if Kelly doesn’t trust him and utilize him properly.

Kelly wanted the responsibility of running the football side of the Eagles organization. He has it. Only he can make it work.

NFL Nation TV talks Hall of Fame

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
11:00
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Join us at 3 p.m. ET, 12 p.m. PT Thursday for the second special NFL Nation TV Super Bowl Week Spreecast.

Episode No. 42 will review ESPN.com's recent joint venture with Pro Football Focus, which broke down how many "above-average" players each team is from contending for the Super Bowl.

The crew will also preview the Super Bowl matchup between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and three-time winner New England Patriots as well as break down how the Pro Football Hall of Fame's upcoming class may shake out Saturday.

Host Paul Gutierrez (ESPN Nation's San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by Jeff Legwold (Denver Broncos reporter) and ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, both of whom are among the Hall's 46 selectors.

 

Tony Romo in the huddleAP Photo/Alex BrandonDallas is looking to avoid another letdown like the one it experienced after its 2009 season.
IRVING, Texas -- In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 11-5 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.

Wade Phillips' staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Fort Lauderdale sun.

The feeling then was that the Cowboys were close to contending for a Super Bowl, that they would make the jump in 2010 after Tony Romo finally got the playoff monkey off his back.

And then 2010 happened.

The Cowboys finished 6-10, Phillips was fired at the midway point and it started a four-year run without the playoffs.

Yes, Romo broke a collarbone and started only six games, but the Cowboys were 1-5 in his starts.

The jump never came and it put the Cowboys on a re-tooling process -- remember, rebuild is a taboo word at Valley Ranch -- that finally paid off in 2014.

In 2014, the Cowboys won the NFC East, finished 12-4 and won a playoff game before losing in the divisional round to a team from the NFC North.

Jason Garrett's staff coached the Pro Bowl and everybody had a grand old time in the Phoenix sun.

The feeling now is that the Cowboys will contend for a Super Bowl in 2015 and make that jump after coming within possibly an overturned Dez Bryant catch of at least making it to the NFC Championship Game.

How do the Cowboys make sure 2015 is not like 2010?

Keep Romo healthy would be a good start, but the makeup of the team is different.

"It's about building," Garrett said. "This is about building, keep building, keep bringing in the right players, keep doing things the right way and building a program. Within that you're building a football team for the 2015 season."

The 2010 Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent. Since the inception of the current system, the Cowboys did not sign an unrestricted free agent in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2010. The 1993 team was so loaded it didn't need much help in winning consecutive Super Bowls. In the other five years, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs.

Free agency is not the cure all. Teams are never a player away, but the Cowboys can make smart additions in free agency in 2015 to help grow the program.

In 2010, the Cowboys had seven starters 30 or older and three players at least 29. Four of the five starters on the offensive line -- Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode -- were older than 30. Inside linebacker Keith Brooking was 35. Cornerback Terance Newman was 32.

With players under contract for 2015, the Cowboys have just three starters more than 30 years old: Romo, Jason Witten and Jeremy Mincey. Right tackle Doug Free (31) and fullback Tyler Clutts (30) are free agents to-be and could be re-signed.

The Cowboys will welcome linebacker Sean Lee back in 2015 after he missed last season with a knee injury. He turns 29 in July. They could also bring back defensive end Anthony Spencer (31). DeMarcus Lawrence figures to be a starter in 2015. He's turns 23 in April. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens also turns 23 in June.

Linebackers Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter are free agents as well. They will be 26 and 27 when the new season starts.

Looking back at 2010 with the perspective of what happened, that Cowboys team was one that was hanging on, not building.

"I think we're a better football team right now," Romo said. "At the same point, you've got to start over. To me, you just can't try and just recreate what you had. You're going to be a different team in certain areas. Each guy has to commit himself to being a better version of himself than he was the year before. If everybody does that, you'll come back as a whole better team than you were."
By season’s end it became clear to the offensive coaches: They needed someone devoted only to the quarterbacks. They got that person Wednesday. Washington hired Matt Cavanaugh as quarterbacks coach.

Last season, offensive coordinator Sean McVay had that title in addition to his other duties. And head coach Jay Gruden once played the position and worked closely with the quarterbacks while a coordinator in Cincinnati. Both, however, found that because of the demands of their new jobs, having one person dedicated to the job would be beneficial.

Cavanaugh spent the last two seasons as the quarterbacks coach in Chicago, but the Bears’ staff was fired after the season. The Chicago quarterbacks had a strong season in 2013, as Jay Cutler and Josh McCown combined for single-season team records in passing yards (4,450), touchdown passes (32) and passer rating (96.9).

Last season, however, Chicago’s quarterbacks (mostly Cutler) finished with an 87.3 rating, 30 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

Cavanaugh also was the New York Jets’ quarterbacks coach from 2009-12. He was Baltimore’s offensive coordinator from 1999-2004, winning a Super Bowl after the 2000 season. He also won Super Bowl rings as a backup quarterback with the 1990 New York Giants and 1984 San Francisco 49ers.

The former second-round pick started 19 career games and appeared in 112. He threw for 4,332 yards and 28 touchdowns while playing for five teams.
IRVING, Texas -- Conventional wisdom holds that the Dallas Cowboys will be better defensively in 2015 mostly because it will be the second year under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

The players will know more about what he does and doesn't want. He will have a better idea about what the players can and cannot do.

But the cast of characters could look vastly different. Of the starters who were in the base defense entering the divisional round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, four are set to be unrestricted free agents: George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain. A fifth, Brandon Carr, could be a salary-cap casualty. Two key backups, Anthony Spencer (unrestricted) and Sterling Moore (restricted), could hit the market at varying levels.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWill the Cowboys be better defensively in Year 2 under coordinator Rod Marinelli? Or will a tougher schedule cause the defense to dip?
The Cowboys will welcome back Sean Lee from a torn ACL, and Morris Claiborne could be back as well from a torn patellar tendon. There should be growth by younger players, like DeMarcus Lawrence, as well as additions through the draft and free agency that could help absorb losses from a defense that fared better than expected.

The Cowboys finished 19th in yards allowed per game (355.1) and 15th in points allowed per game (22) in 2014.

But there is another factor to consider in how much the defense can improve: the level of opponents.

Using yards and points as the indicator, the Cowboys faced just five offenses that finished in the top half of the league in yards and six in the top half in points in 2014. While predicting success based on past results can be flawed, in 2015 the Cowboys will face 13 offenses that finished in the top half in yards and 10 that finished in the top half in points last season.

During his three-year run as coordinator with the Chicago Bears, the numbers in Marinelli’s second year slipped.

In 2010, the Bears were ninth in yards allowed per game (314.3) and fourth in points allowed per game (17.9). In 2011, they were 17th in yards (350.4) and 14th in points (21.3). In 2012, they rebounded in yards allowed (315.6, which was fifth-best) and points allowed (17.3, third-best).

In 2010, they played seven offenses that finished in the top half in yards and eight in the top half in points. In 2011, they faced 10 offenses that finished in the top half in yards and points. In 2012, there were nine offenses in the top half in yards and eight in the top half in points.

The Cowboys’ 2015 schedule features Seattle, Green Bay, Atlanta, New England, New Orleans and Miami out of the division. Those offenses are much better than the units the Cowboys faced in 2014 (San Francisco, Tennessee, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona).

The one constant, however, in a Marinelli defense has been the ability to take the ball away.

In 2010, the Bears were tied for third in turnovers forced with 35. They had 31 in 2011 (tied for fifth), and they led the NFL in takeaways in 2012 with 44.

The Cowboys were able to take it away 31 times in 2014, ranked second in the league.

“There are a lot of different ways to measure your defense and a lot of people get caught up in yards and all the different ways that people use numbers in this game, but taking the ball away impacts the game,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said when the season ended. “It impacts the game like none other . . . You look at the correlation between takeaways and points scored and it’s a pretty direct correlation and has been for a long time. And points scored relates to winning.”

Redskins thoughts: Perry Fewell

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
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Just a few thoughts on the Washington Redskins hiring Perry Fewell Tuesday to coach the secondary (they also hired Mike Clark to be their new strength and conditioning coach):

  • The Redskins interviewed Fewell for their head-coaching job last season, so I talked to a few people at that time about him. It was clear that few, if any, pegged him as a future head coach. Then, he didn't have that X factor that it took to be a head coach (and that was from someone who knew him).
  • As a coordinator, Fewell had mixed results: His four defenses in Buffalo ranked between 10-18 in terms of points allowed and were mostly middle of the pack when it came to yards (except for one 31st place ranking). With New York, Fewell's five defenses again had mixed success, with two top-10 finishes for total yards and three that ranked between 27-31. With points, those units ranked between 12-25. I'm not a big believer on going just off stats, but there's a good sample size here. But he's not coming here to be a coordinator.
  • As a position coach, I've heard good things from those in the game -- and it's what I heard last year, too. Fewell is described as energetic, enthusiastic and professional. I think the defense will benefit from a lot of those qualities -- and there's a definite theme to the Redskins' defensive hires thus far.
  • Whether they work out or not, I don't know. I've seen enough change and every time someone new comes on board, there's always talk about how things will be different under the new guy. And I know the secondary liked departed coach Raheem Morris, who was as energetic as they come. But he was not someone who impressed others in the same manner.
  • I've heard that Fewell was liked by his players in New York. I hear you though: The fans want someone who helps the team win. No, it doesn't matter if they're liked or not, but when you spend this much time together you don't want it to be toxic, either. Ultimately, what players really like is a guy who makes them better.
  • But does that mean Fewell is an upgrade? Don't know. But it will be a different vibe, as it will be with new coordinator Joe Barry. I think a new vibe is most definitely needed on defense. Make it more business-like.
  • One NFL assistant said Fewell is better at preparation -- he's considered more of a teacher than a planner -- than adjusting during a game. That could explain some issues as a defensive coordinator. And the word out of New York was that he'd sometimes make the defenses too complicated and perhaps overthink the game plan a bit.
  • What I remember in the research last year, and it was reiterated Tuesday, is that Fewell would listen to his players when it came to changing the scheme. What this means for him as a position coach? That flexibility always helps, but you also have to earn a level of trust before coming to him with suggestions. It's one thing if veteran linebacker Jon Beason has something to say as opposed to a player in his second or third season.
  • As for Clark, he's entering his 12th season and has worked for Chicago, Kansas City and Seattle (when it lost in Super Bowl XL).
We have spent -- and will continue to spend -- a great deal of time talking about New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning's contract. At $19.75 million, Manning's is by far the largest salary cap hit on the Giants' 2015 roster at this point, and they'd be wise to extend his contract beyond 2015 to get some relief from that.

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
William Perlman/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Victor Cruz is a special guy, and the Giants know this, and because of that they have some tough decisions to make on a possible salary cut.
But on a separate note, I'm curious to see whether the Giants feel the need to do anything about the second-highest cap hit on their roster -- the $8.125 million number that belongs to wide receiver Victor Cruz.

Cruz signed his long-term deal prior to the 2013 season. He has four years left on that deal at an average salary of $7.5 million per year and an average cap hit of $9 million per year. This year's salary is a palatable $6.15 million. Next year's is a more exorbitant $7.9 million. None of the remaining salary in his deal is guaranteed.

Now, if Cruz produces the way he produced in the two years before he signed the deal -- two years in which he averaged 84 catches, 1,314 yards and 9.5 touchdowns -- these numbers are no problem. However, his production dropped in 2013 (73 catches, 998 yards, 4 touchdowns and missed the final two games due to injury). And in the sixth game of the 2014 season, he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee and had to have major surgery that ended his season.

There is no guarantee Cruz comes all the way back from the injury, or that he's the same kind of explosive player he was before it happened. The Giants hope he makes a full recovery, and he and they are optimistic he will. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo has some creative ways to use Cruz that he didn't get to show much in 2014 before the injury. The team's preference would be to have Cruz all the way back and earning his contract in their new offense for the next four years.

But this is a cold business, this NFL contract business. And with Odell Beckham Jr. having exploded onto the scene as a superstar talent and producer in Cruz's absence, the Giants may well have the leverage they need to seek a reduction in Cruz's salary over the remaining four years of the deal. And it may be in their best salary-cap interest to seek that reduction. They can point out the 12 missed games over the past two years and use Beckham's emergence to help their case and maybe shave a couple of million bucks off of that cap number this year.

Doing this would run the risk of alienating one of the team's best and favorite players. Cruz is a selfless, team-first guy who showed up in 2014 training camp after signing the deal and told the coaches he wanted to work on becoming a better downfield blocker in the run game. He's a special guy, and the Giants know this, and because of that they may decide this isn't a road they want to travel. That contract definitely means something to him, and it may well hurt his pride if they come to him and threaten him with a release while telling him Beckham has passed him -- even if it's just a negotiating tactic.

Cutting Cruz would only save the Giants $2.425 million cap space this year, so assuming they believe he's going to make it all the way back that's not a worthwhile way to go. But given the way things have gone since Cruz signed that deal a year and a half ago, it's not crazy to at least look at making some changes to it.

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