Football's most competitive division should be more of the same in 2009. All four teams could finish above .500, but the Giants and Eagles have to be considered a tier above the Cowboys and Redskins, if only because Dallas and Washington are too imbalanced toward one side of the ball (for Dallas, the offense, and for Washington, the defense). Keep an eye on a Giants fade down the stretch; if it happens, it may mean Eli Manning still hasn't figured out the wind.
ORDER OF FINISH
z-New York Giants 12-4
x-Philadelphia Eagles 11-5
Dallas Cowboys 10-6
Washington Redskins 7-9
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Brandon Jacobs, RB, New York
It was tough going with a player who is injury-prone and essentially a part-time player, but this division is full of injury-prone part-time players. Brian Westbrook and Donovan McNabb are two of the more injury-prone players in the league, and with the additions of LeSean McCoy and Mike Vick, the longtime Eagles are now also part of a platoon. Marion Barber is going to split carries with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, while Tony Romo showed a little fragility last year (and is one of the worst clutch players ever). Clinton Portis is actually one of the five or six best running backs in the league, at least for the four weeks before injuries start chipping away at his effectiveness. Eli Manning is alright, but that's all he is, alright. Jacobs, on the other hand, is devastating. No other back in the league punishes tacklers like Jacobs, and few other players produce so much value (1089 yards, 15 TDs) in so few opportunities (219 carries). Beyond the production and physical damage he does, Jacobs wears a defense down psychologically. After running into this (language NSFW) three or four times, a defender may just think twice before diving back in for more.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Justin Tuck, DE, New York
The emergence of Tuck has made the replacement of one of the best pass-rushers ever--Michael Strahan--a complete non-issue. Since joining the starting lineup in 2007, Tuck has 100 tackles, 22 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and an interception returned for a TD. In the two seasons Tuck has started, the Giants have ranked 7th and 5th in total defense after ranking 25th in 2006. Eli Manning and David Tyree's helmet get all of the glory (as they probably should), but it was Tuck who really won Super Bowl XLII. Tuck had 5 tackles, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble as he never let Tom Brady get comfortable. I'm sure if Bill Belichick ever gives an honest answer about that game (perhaps on his deathbed?), he would admit that Justin Tuck beat him and his 17-0 Patriots almost single-handedly.
1. Can Eli Manning trust a receiver who doesn't carry a gun in his sweatpants?
That depends if Steve Smith owns a gun and sweat pants, since Manning obviously trusts his number one 3rd down target. Is there any other receiver in Manning's circle of trust, though? Well, Domenik Hixon blew it when he dropped a sure touchdown bomb vs. the Eagles last season. Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden are rookies, while Mario Manningham and Sinorice Moss are looking more and more like draft busts.* The point is, beyond Smith and tight end Kevin Boss, Manning may be scrambling to find someone reliable on those tricky 3rd-and-6s. The bigger question is will Manning even be able to get those receivers the ball in the wind? Losing Plaxico Burress didn't only rob Manning of his most trusted receiver; it also robbed the Giants of the only guy tall enough to catch the balls Manning sent sailing in the Meadowlands wind. If Eli hasn't learned how to get the ball to shorter receivers in the swirling New Jersey air, another strong start by the Giants may be undone by the conditions on their own home field.
*And Gaylord Focker got caught lying about Eli's cat, Mr. Jinx.
2. Will Mike Vick be Donovan McNabb's undoing?
You'd think not, since it was McNabb who convinced Andy Reid to bring Vick in. Consider this, though: In Philadelphia's week 12 game vs. Baltimore last season, McNabb was benched at halftime after going 8-18 for 59 yards and 2 INTs. Following backup Kevin Kolb's equally putrid performance in the second half (10-23, 73 yards, 2 INTS), McNabb regained his starting job the following week against the Cardinals. The Eagles destroyed Arizona 48-20, and McNabb had 4 TDs. The starting job firmly his, Donovan led the Eagles on a late-season rally, advancing all the way to the NFC Championship game (McNabb's fifth). Having seemingly cementing his place as a Philly sports icon, McNabb signed a two-year extension that gave him a $5.3 million raise. So all is well, right? I'm not so sure.
McNabb was upset about that benching, and I don't think he's going to just let it slide. The money was nice, yes, but you have to wonder if an irrevocable rift has developed between McNabb and Reid. McNabb has to wonder what would have happened to him if Kolb had performed well in that second half in Baltimore. Would he have gotten his job back? Would he have been traded in the offseason? Because Kolb was so terrible, we'll never know, but the doubt that the Eagles really want him has to be in McNabb's mind. Maybe he figures if he's going to be shipped out of town, it might as well be on his terms, so he convinced Reid to bring in Vick, knowing that there is a greater chance the QBs will have to split some time with the rising popularity of the Wildcat, and maybe Vick will start to outperform McNabb, leading to even more playing time for Vick. McNabb will get ticked, and somewhat justifiably start to try to force his way out. Because his playing time is getting jerked around, Philly fans won't really be able blame McNabb for wanting a change of scenery and may start to blame Reid for abusing their new favorite son, McNabb. Donovan may finally gets traded, while at the same time making his new nemesis, Andy Reid, look bad and himself look like the tortured martyr he's always pretended to be. I know it's assuming a lot of foresight (and spite) on McNabb's part, but doesn't it all make a little too much sense?*
*No, it doesn't. By the way, what does Kevin Kolb think of all this? The Eagles traded up to the fourth pick in the 2nd round of the 2007 draft to get him, sat him on the bench for a season, then gave him an opportunity to steal the starting job in the worst possible context (the Ravens game), before finally writing him off after he struggled coming in cold off the bench against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Because Andy Reid apparently wants to make sure Kolb knows he has no shot of ever starting for the Eagles, McNabb's extension was followed up with the signing of Michael Vick. I don't know if Kevin Kolb is ever going to be a decent quarterback or not, but surely he deserves a better chance than this.
3. Is Albert Haynesworth going to earn his record salary?
In terms of production, no, but he will come fairly close (I mean, even if he played out the entire contract at the level he played at last season, is it worth $100 million?). In terms of value to the Redskins, though, absolutely not. Over the last 8 games of 2008, the Redskins topped 20 points twice (at Seattle and at San Francisco on the last day of the season). During that span, the Washington offense averaged 275 yards per game. Overall, the Redskins finished the year 19th in total yards and 28th in scoring. The defense, on the other hand, finished 6th in points allowed and 4th in total yards allowed. While there was a need for a pass rush, the most glaring needs of the team resided on the offensive side of the ball. So what did Washington do to shore up their struggling offense? They signed guard Derrick Dockery, who performed so well in Buffalo they cut him two years after signing him to the third largest contract ever given to an offensive guard. Perhaps instead of spending $100 million on a redundancy (albeit a very talented one) that improves a strength*, Dan Snyder could have used that money to trade for T Jason Peters, signed C Jason Brown, and picked up a receiver (Torry Holt? Terrell Owens? Joey Galloway?) to give Jason Campbell somebody other than Santana Moss and Chris Cooley to throw to. Instead of adding a monster piece to an already pretty complete puzzle, the Redskins should have tried filling out the edges of the still-mixed up mess that is their offense.
*Honestly, what difference does it make if a defense is ranked 4th or 1st if the offense is only scoring 10 points a game? I guess you may lose 17-10 instead of 20-10, but that would only matter to an owner who is a degenerate gambler. Hey, wait a second...+