Cowboys will be favorites in NFC East

To many, the fact that the Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East last season came as something of a surprise.

That's not to suggest that Dallas was some sort of talentless also-ran a year ago, of course, but after last offseason, many considered the New York Giants the favorites going into the season.

The Giants had made several moves during the offseason leading up to the 2009 season that drew analysts' applause, not the least of which was the team's signing of defensive lineman Chris Canty, a move that was designed to strengthen their already-stout defensive front seven — and weaken the Cowboys' defense.

New York also signed talented linebacker Michael Boley and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard, and had what many viewed as a very solid draft, with the selections of wide receivers Hakim Nicks and Ramses Barden, linebacker Clint Sintim and offensive tackle William Beatty.

Based on those moves, many entered the 2009 season talking about the possibility of the Giants reaching the Super Bowl.

Things obviously didn't work out the way the Giants would have liked, but offseason personnel decisions obviously have a huge impact on the way each upcoming season will shake out. With that in mind, could a recent personnel decision and another that might soon be made — neither by Dallas — facilitate the Cowboys' return to the top of the NFC East?

Quick answer: yes.

The Philadelphia Eagles announced Tuesday that they are parting ways with longtime running back Brian Westbrook, who spent the past eight years in the Philadelphia backfield, quietly torturing defenses who looked at him as anything less than a premium threat. Blessed with great hands and elusiveness, and a nearly ESP-like connection with quarterback Donovan McNabb when defenses forced the Eagles' offense to improvise, Westbrook was a dynamic threat who usually was his team's most dangerous weapon and who led the entire NFL in total yards from scrimmage during the 2007 season. He was at his best against NFC East opponents, fumbling just 12 times in his eight seasons — a remarkably low number for a player often deemed "too small" (he played most of his career at just about 200 pounds) — and ran for 37 touchdowns and caught 29 more. He never led the NFL in rushing or screamed for headlines like Terrell Owens did during his one year in Philadelphia, but Westbrook will be sorely missed in Philadelphia.

The Eagles have an able heir apparent, and maybe even a future star, in LeSean McCoy, who averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 155 carries in his rookie season. At 5-10, 198 pounds, his size is similar to Westbrook's, and while he's not the receiving threat Westbrook was — at least not yet — he showed better hands than advertised when he came out of Pitt, catching 40 passes for 308 yards. Perhaps most importantly, he might have learned Westbrook's innate ability to move the chains, picking up 13 first downs through the air.

Westbrook is not the only big name sent packing this week after a long, successful run with one team. San Diego cut LaDanian Tomlinson. Julius Peppers was told by the Carolina Panthers that he is free to seek employment elsewhere, as was cornerback Dunta Robinson in Houston.

So the question immediately became: who's next?

Now there is talk that the Washington Redskins might want to rid themselves of running back Clinton Portis, or at least of his enormous contract (he has two years left on an eight-year contract worth just over $50 million that he signed after being traded from Denver to Washington in 2004).

It's true that the Cowboys aren't spending the offseason sweating about the Redskins, who posted a 0-6 mark against NFC East foes during the second and final season of the Jim Zorn Error. But there also is no reason to believe that a proven coach like Mike Shanahan will put such a disjointed squad on the field this year, either. Contrary to what many Dallas fans would like to think, Washington does have talent, and if taken lightly, should be able to cause problems for some opponents.

Are the Redskins a Super Bowl contender? No. But they have a good defense and some offensive pieces that showed signs of effectiveness when quarterback Jason Campbell wasn't running for his life (which was most of the time). Shanahan arrives in Washington with a reputation as something of an offensive genius, who orchestrates an efficient running game that sets up a versatile passing game. He'll have a healthy Chris Cooley, one of the game's elite tight ends, and either Chris Samuels will be back at left tackle or a new face will be in place at the position as Shanahan begins to overhaul what was one of the NFL's worst offensive lines last season.

The reason decision by the Redskins to release Portis would help the Cowboys (and the rest of Washington's opponents) is because Washington simply has too many holes to fix all at once. Even if Shanahan decides to stick with Jason Campbell as his top quarterback — which is anything but certain, as many expect him to spend the fourth pick in the upcoming draft on a quarterback — he has to overhaul the offensive line and bolster the wide receivers, and could use additional help at linebacker and safety. So if Portis is set free, the team might decide it has too many other needs to address before looking for another running back, and go with Ladell Betts, an underrated runner but hardly a star. Would that guarantee that Dallas will sweep the Redskins again? Of course not — the rivalry is among the NFL's best, regardless of the teams' records — but it sure would help.

Westbrook's departure and a potential exit by Portis certainly don't ensure Dallas will repeat as division champions — the Giants will have a lot to say about that, of course. But weaker opponents, which is the only result that can be taken from these moves, certainly help.

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