NFL Prospectus - The NFC, Part Two

In Part Two of a two-part NFC Preview, .NET's Doug Farrar looks at the balance of power in the NFC East and NFC North. Next week: Part One of an two-part AFC Preview, featuring the AFC West and AFC South.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

2003 Record: 10-6, Second Place in the NFC East.

Additions: RB Eddie George (Titans), WR Keyshawn Johnson (Bucs), DE Marcellus Wiley (Chargers), QB Vinny Testaverde (Jets), WR Dedric Ward (Patriots), QB Drew Henson (Texans)

Subtractions: WR Joey Galloway (Bucs), OL Ryan Young (Cowboys), P Toby Gowin (Jets), DE Ebenezer Ekuban (Browns), CB Mario Edwards (Bucs), RB Troy Hambrick (Raiders), DT Willie Blade (Giants), TE James Whalen (Bengals), QB Chad Hutchinson (released)

The Ups: I’m starting to become convinced that if you gave Bill Parcells a high school All-Star team to coach, he could get them into the NFL playoffs inside of two years. Ladies and gentlemen, he’s done it again! After three 5-11 seasons in a row, The Tuna had his new charges in the playoffs in Year One. As usual, he did it with a balanced offense bereft of “marquee guys” (if you want to play for this man, bring your hard hat and lunch pail!) and a dominant, punishing defense.

The defense is what really made this team go – the ‘Boys probably have the best secondary in the NFL with the likes of Darren Woodson, Roy Williams and super-rookie Terence Newman. In addition, overachieving linebackers Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley played nails-tough as they always do. The defense’s #1 ranking is all the more impressive when you consider that this team hasn’t had a defensive lineman with double-digit sacks since 1996. The signing of Marcellus Wiley may be a curative, but Wiley himself hasn’t really dominated since 2001 (13 sacks in 2001, 9 total in ’02 and ’03). Still, there are many reasons that Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer will be at the top of every prospective coaching list very, very soon. He and Parcells work in perfect concert.

The Downs: Not that Parcells had much to work with offensively when he took over the team, but the “No Marquee Guys Need Apply” may have been taken a little too far under his brief tenure. Passing on Steven Jackson in the draft, trading Galloway for Keyshawn (the equivalent of exchanging one straight-to-video DVD for another at your local video store), signing Vinny Testaverde and passing on the likes of Kerry Collins, 86-ing Troy Hambrick for Eddie George on the decline…well, there are a lot of “What is he thinking?” questions going around. And even with Parcells’ genius, it’s really questionable whether the 2004 Cowboys will have enough firepower to make any manner of deep playoff run. Still, if anyone can pull it off…the ‘Boys will win the NFC East in 2004, and Parcells is the main reason why.

Projected 2004 Finish: 11-5, First Place in the NFC East.

Philadelphia Eagles

2003 Record: 12-4, First Place in the NFC East.

Additions: DE Jevon Kearse (Titans), WR Terrell Owens (49ers), LB Jeremiah Trotter (Redskins), LB Dhani Jones (Giants), QB Jeff Blake (Cardinals),

Subtractions: LB Carlos Emmons (Giants), RB Duce Staley (Steelers), DE Marco Coleman (Broncos), CB Troy Vincent (Bills), CB Bobby Taylor (Seahawks), OG Bobbie Williams (Bengals), LB Tyreo Harrison (Packers), QB A.J. Feeley (Dolphins), DL Brandon Whiting (49ers), WR James Thrash (Redskins, OG John Welbourn (Chiefs)

The Ups: After losing three consecutive NFC Championships, the Eagles felt that drastic change was in order. So, after fielding one of the more consistently balanced teams of the new millennium, the Eags blew it all up, took a stiff swig of the red liquor, pushed all the chips to the middle, and gambled big on the two free agent prizes of the 2003 offseason – former Titans DE Jevon Kearse and All-Time Pain In The Butt Terrell Owens. Wild, wacky stuff!

The upside of these moves? Well, if he can keep his head on straight, T.O. provides Donovan McNabb with the Total Receiver Package he’s never had. And if he can stay healthy, Kearse The Freak will no doubt continue his terror-strikes against every QB the Eagles oppose. But in two Yankee-esque moves, this team may have just spent their way out of another division title.

The Downs: Owens’ main problem in Philly? With Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell as his accomplices, he’ll see more than his share of double coverage…his acquisition could wind up being better for Pinkston and Mitchell than for Owens himself. And as soon as coach Andy Reid starts spreading the ball around and T.O. sees his stats head south as a decoy…well, we’ve seen THAT movie before.

Kearse has no such antisocial tendencies…what he does have is a frightening injury history for someone who just bagged a large portion of the team’s total cap. And in a cap-driven league, you simply cannot put this much pressure on two players – I don’t care how good they are. Were the Eagles too depressed after the NFC Championship to watch the Super Bowl and see two well-balanced teams go Ali-Frazier on each other? Apparently.

And what of the position depth? Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent are gone, leaving a mere shell of Philly’s formerly stellar secondary. Tough-guy RB Duce Staley is now a Steeler and the Eags are just hoping Brian Westbrook can stay healthy. LB Jeremiah Trotter might be a bargain at essentially the vet minimum, but there’s no denying it…this is a franchise that has blown apart the big picture for one shot at glory. Wrong sport, guys…

Projected 2004 Finish: 8-8, Second Place in the NFC East.

Washington Redskins

2003 Record: 5-11, Third Place in the NFC East.

Additions: RB Clinton Portis (Broncos), QB Mark Brunell (Jaguars), WR James Thrash (Eagles), DT Cornelius Griffin (Giants), DE Phillip Daniels (Bears), LB Marcus Washington (Colts), CB Shawn Springs (Seahawks), P Tom Tupa (Bucs), C Cory Raymer (Chargers), TE Walter Rasby (Saints), CB Ralph Brown (Giants), CB Walt Harris (Colts), DT Joe Salave'a (Chargers), WR Kevin Swayne (Jets), TE Brian Kozlowski (Falcons), LB Michael Barrow (Giants), TE Fred Baxter (Patriots)

Subtractions: CB Champ Bailey (Broncos), DE Bruce Smith (released), LB Jessie Armstead (Panthers), DT Lional Dalton (Chiefs), P Bryan Barker (released), DT Martin Chase (Giants), WR Patrick Johnson (Bengals), DT Darrell Russell (Bucs), WR Kevin Swayne (Jets), TE Byron Chamberlain (Broncos), OL Larry Moore (Bengals), S David Terrell (Raiders), LB Jeremiah Trotter (Eagles), RB Trung Canidate (released), OG Dave Fiore (released), DL Bernard Holsey (Rams), TE Zeron Flemister (Patriots), FB Bryan Johnson (Bears)

The Ups: A brief tip of the cap to exiled coach Steve Spurrier. Sportswriters everywhere lament the departure of the NFL’s single greatest source of unintentional comedy since Ryan Leaf. However, since winning is the only thing, the ‘Skins went all-out on the coaching carousel and brought Joe Gibbs back from the franchise’s storied echoes. With the success of Parcells and Vermeil, there’s no reason to believe that Gibbs won’t win again – he’s hired a stellar staff (including offensive line coach Joe Bugel and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams), he has an owner who will do anything to win and idolizes him enough to shaddup and let him buy the groceries, and he’s made some acquisitions that will at least pull the team out of the doldrums.

New starter Mark Brunell replaces the shell-shocked Patrick Ramsey, a victim of inexperience, Spurrier’s coaching and an abysmal offensive line. Brunell can still run an offense, even if he doesn’t have the sheer tools he used to. And in the blockbuster trade of the year, the ‘Skins picked up Clinton Portis from the Broncos, which immediately erases the Stephen Davis debacle and puts the team on the boards as a major offensive threat. WRs Laveranues Coles, Rod Gardner and Darnerien McCants will provide crucial balance and skilled targets for Brunell. The line’s problems were likely more a matter of scheme than talent, and Bugel should at least have that line close enough to the middle of the pack to save Brunell from too much harm.

The Downs: Problem #1 – No doubt Portis is great, but giving up Champ Bailey (the finest shutdown corner in the NFL) could be a BIG mistake. Especially when the ‘Skins, in a move that caused unbridled fits of hilarity in Seattle, made Shawn Springs their key free-agent DB pickup. One wonders if Gibbs might have been better off picking up a Troy Hambrick, keeping Bailey, and looking to the 2005 draft for that uber-back. Balance, people! 1st-round draft pick Sean Taylor will help the defensive backfield, but unless Fred Smoot can transform himself into Deion Sanders, the ‘Skins just bought themselves a pass coverage problem.

Problem #2 – After losing Armstead and Trotter, the ‘Skins did retool their LB corps with Marcus Washington of the Colts and criminally underrated former Giant Michael Barrow. What smarts is that with no real upgrades to a defensive line that only recorded 27 sacks last year, they’ll have to send the team’s best LB, LaVar Arrington, on point to rush the passer more than they should. That scenario worked when they had Bailey shutting down half the field. Now? Not so much.

Offense? Good. Defense? Incomplete. They’re a year away.

Projected 2004 Finish: 7-9, Third Place in the NFC East.

New York Giants

2003 Record: 4-12, Last Place in the NFC East.

Additions: QB Kurt Warner (Rams), LB Carlos Emmons (Eagles), OL Shaun O'Hara (Browns), DT Fred Robbins (Vikings), LB Barrett Green (Lions), OL Barry Stokes (Browns), DT Martin Chase (Redskins), S Jack Brewer (Vikings), CB Terry Cousin (Panthers), DE Lorenzo Bromell (Raiders), OT Ed Ellis (Chargers), DT Norman Hand (Seahawks), K Bill Gramatica (Cardinals), DT Glen Steele (Bengals), WR James McKnight (Dolphins), WR JaJuan Dawson (Colts), S Jason Doering (Colts), S Brent Alexander (Steelers), OL Mathias Nkwenti (Steelers), TE Joe Dean Davenport (Colts), DT Willie Blade (Cowboys)

Subtractions: RB Brian Mitchell (released), RB Dorsey Levens (released), DT Cornelius Griffin (Redskins), LB Dhani Jones (Eagles), LB Michael Barrow (Redskins), CB Ike Charlton (Raiders), QB Jason Garrett (Bucs), OL Jeff Hatch (released), CB Ralph Brown (Redskins), K Mike Hollis (released), LB Brandon Short (Panthers), QB Kerry Collins (Raiders), S Clarence LeBlanc (released), WR Ryan Hoag (released), S Ryan Clark (released), OL Jeff Roehl (Seahawks), OL Mathias Nkwenti (released), TE Darnell Dinkins (released)

The Ups: New York talk radio is going to have a BLAST with Brenda Warner. And Michael Strahan is always entertaining. Decent receivers in Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard and a productive RB in Tiki Barber (if he can hold on to the football). Other than that? Ouch!!!

The Downs: The G-Men are up against two cases of “Be Careful What You Wish For” with new Head Coach Tom Coughlin and Mega-Brat “Franchise QB” Eli Manning. In Coughlin’s case, he’ll once again be facing the fundamental difference between a martinet and a dominant coach – winning! Unlike Lombardi and Parcells (the figures he cut his template on), Coughlin has dealt with an unsuccessful end to his last job (Jacksonville), and the perception that players will sometimes quit on him. He’ll need a fast start in New York…if that doesn’t happen, the resulting explosions could make the Manhattan Project seem like a kitchen fire.

The Giants overreacted to their 4-12 season last year to a horrific degree – instead of keeping dependable but unspectacular QB Kerry Collins and rebuilding other skill positions over time, GM Ernie Accorsi mortgaged the team’s future for Eli Manning. There’s a school of thought that swears Manning will be a great quarterback in this league, but the odds are really stacked against him. Even at Ole Miss, the knock on Eli was that he would fold and make strange decisions under pressure…welcome to the worst offensive line in the NFL! With a father and brother who have done their own time in the pros, there will be no tolerance for failure…welcome to the most ruthless media market in the world! He’ll need time to learn the NFL’s complexities and a controversy-free environment in which to do it…welcome to the Kurt and Brenda (“I don’t know why Kurt isn’t still starting, Mike and Mike!”) Warner Show! The entire front office has its fortunes tied to this one decision…everywhere Manning turns, he’s likely to see monsters. People can't stand him because of his draft-day shennanigans. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

Projected 2004 Finish: 4-12, Last Place in the NFC East.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings

2003 Record: 9-7, Second Place in the NFC North.

Additions: CB Antoine Winfield (Bills), DT Steve Martin (Texans), WR Marcus Robinson (Ravens), DB Tyrone Carter (Jets), TE Jermaine Wiggins (Panthers), P Darren Bennett (Chargers), LB Keith Newman (Falcons)

Subtractions: DT Fred Robbins (Giants), WR D'Wayne Bates (released), S Jack Brewer (released), TE Hunter Goodwin (Falcons), CB Denard Walker (Raiders), LB Henri Crockett (released), FB Charles Stackhouse (released), CB Eric Kelly (Texans), TE Steve Farmer (released), P Eddie Johnson (Bengals), OL Everett Lindsay (Cardinals)

The Ups: Pundits who overlook the Vikes in their rush to appoint the Pack the class of the division by default may look like boneheads after the party’s over…this is a team on the verge of putting it all together. Their heartbreaking 2003 season's end was probably the last bad thing to happen to the Vikings.

We all know about the offense…and it appears to have improved! Daunte Culpepper was the NFC’s Pro Bowl starting QB. He’s still a beast to bring down at 6’4”, 260, and he’s augmented his natural gifts with playbook intelligence and real toughness. The Vikes also have terrifying depth at RB with Michael Bennett (coming back from an injury-plagued 2003), Onterrio Smith and Moe Williams. And in a very un-wide-receiver-like burst of maturity, Randy Moss seems to be (possibly) beginning to (maybe) want to be a (gasp!) team leader (you never know). Moss will be joined by Marcus Robinson (Seahawk fans will remember HIM as the ex-Raven who torched us for about 50 TDs in the “Tom White Game”), which means trouble for opposing secondaries.

The defense (which really kept Minnesota out of the playoffs last year) has undergone its own transformation. Kevin Williams, Chris Hovan, Kenny Mixon and first-round draft pick monster Kenechi Udeze (AIEEE!) will form a very nasty brick wall on the defensive line. This is still a team that could really knock a lot of people sideways.

The Downs: If 2004 isn’t the season many expect, look for some big changes, including the likely departure of Coach Mike Tice. The linebacker position is a source of concern – if veteran Chris Claiborne, second-year man E.J. Henderson and rookie Dontarrious Thomas don’t live up to expectations, the defense will fall short again. This wouldn’t stop them from winning a weak division, but it could nail them in the playoffs.

Projected 2004 Finish: 11-5, First Place in the NFC North.

Green Bay Packers

2003 Record: 10-6, First Place in the NFC North.

Additions: FS Mark Roman (Bengals), CB-KR Chris Watson (Lions), TE Steve Bush (Cardinals), QB Tim Couch (Browns), LB Tyreo Harrison (Eagles)

Subtractions: DT Gilbert Brown (released), P Josh Bidwell (Bucs), DT Rod Walker (Panthers), WR Travis Williams (released), S Antuan Edwards (Dolphins), CB Bryant Westbrook (released), DE Joe Johnson (released), CB Derek Combs (released), DE Jamal Reynolds (Browns)

The Ups: This may be heresy to Favreaholics like John Madden (currently praying to the life-size cheddar cheese statue of #4 that resides in his front yard), but the Packers are now Ahman Green’s team. Green rushed for 1883 yards in 2003 (5685 yards in the four years he’s been with Green Bay) and without his efforts, the Pack wouldn’t be a .500 team. Favre himself had quite a year - inspired by the death of his father (a touching story until the press just blew it up to a sickening degree), he had another excellent season, but his floaty off-target missiles in the Philly playoff game and his frequent retirement hints point to the fact that the Pack had better start thinking about a reasonable replacement for King Brett.

This just in: Tim Couch ain’t it.

The Downs: An indifferent draft, their best cornerback (Mike McKenzie) begging to leave the team, so-so receivers, a decent (but not decent enough) defense…changes abound. Not good. The Pack might not be back for a while.

Projected 2004 Finish: 8-8, Second Place in the NFC North.

Detroit Lions

2003 Record:
5-11, Last Place in the NFC North.

Additions: OL Damien Woody (Patriots), CB Fernando Bryant (Jaguars), CB Dainon Sidney (Bills), WR Tai Streets (49ers), OG David Loverne (Rams), FS Brock Marion (Dolphins), QB Rick Mirer (Raiders), TE Stephen Alexander (Chargers), DT Marcus Bell (Cardinals), OL Solomon Page (Chargers)

Subtractions: RB James Stewart (released), DT Luther Elliss (released), WR Bill Schroeder (Bucs), S Corey Harris (released), LB Barrett Green (Giants), LB Jeff Gooch (Bucs), OL Eric Beverly (Falcons), CB Otis Smith (Patriots), CB-KR Chris Watson (Packers), WR James Williams (released), TE Mikhael Ricks (Jets)

The Ups: Things can only get better, and they will for the Lions. A young and improving team, led by a talented and dynamic coach - this could be the year that Steve Mariucci’s team bails out of the darkness. QB Joey Harrington will get two very nice presents – WR Charles Rogers, last year’s first-round draft pick, was sidelined by injury in 2003. But not only is Rogers back, he’ll be joined by this year’s first-round pick, Texas WR Roy Williams. Rogers and Williams could challenge Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals as the finest young WR duo in the NFL. Add in Tai Streets and Az Zahir-Hakim and the question becomes, who will opposing defenses double? Potential for the offense also comes from the RB position in the person of second-round pick Kevin Jones from Virginia Tech.

What the Lions already have is a great offensive line – a line that allowed only 11 sacks last year. This is a major factor – one that will allow this young offense the necessary time to grow. The D-line is anchored by Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers and Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson. Good luck holding those guys back! Star LBs include Boss Bailey and James Davis, and the secondary is starting to come together with Dre Bly at the pointman.

The Downs: Youth, inexperience and a few position holes that still need help…but start buying stock in the Lions now. They’ll be a real force in the years to come.

Projected 2004 Finish: 7-9, Third Place in the NFC North.

Chicago Bears

2003 Record: 7-9, Third Place in the NFC North.

Additions: RB Thomas Jones (Bucs), QB Jonathan Quinn (Chiefs), OT John Tait (Chiefs), OG Michael Keathley (Chargers), LB Jack Golden (Bucs), OG Ruben Brown (Bills), FB Bryan Johnson (Redskins)

Subtractions: QB Kordell Stewart (Ravens), DE Phillip Daniels (Redskins), LB Warrick Holdman (Browns), OG Chris Villarrial (Bills), QB Chris Chandler (Rams), WR Dez White (Falcons), DT Keith Traylor (Patriots), FB Stanley Pritchett (Falcons)

The Ups: Well, they have a coach named “Lovie”. That’s fun! And they also have a great shot at the first draft pick in 2005. Uhhh…did I mention that the Cubs just got Nomahhhhhhh?

The Downs: Sheesh. Where do I start? I don’t want to be cruel here…

Starting QB: Rex Grossman. Starting RB: Thomas Jones. Starting WRs: Marty Booker and David Terrell. Starting D-line: 18 sacks in 2003, worst in the NFL. Brian Urlacher: Hurt his hamstring the first day of camp. Have mercy!

I gotta stop. I have nothing against Chicago, but WHOA…this is going to be ugly. Maybe they can beat the Packers or something? Maybe the Cubs will win the World Series?

Projected 2004 Finish: 3-13, Last Place in the NFC North.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. You can reach him at Top Stories