NFC East preview: One tough neighborhood

NFC East preview: One tough neighborhood
by Cris Carter, Yahoo Sports
August 20, 2004

Cris Carter
Yahoo Sports
Cris' Prediction
   1. Philadelphia
   2. Dallas
   3. Washington
   4. New York

Cris Carter's division previews:
AFC: East | North | South | West
NFC: East | North | South | West

The NFC East is always a tight and hard-fought division. This season it will be even more so after a busy offseason and the return of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. The Eagles won't be able to run away from the competition even though they have far superior talent.

As it was in my day, home-field advantage will mean a lot in the NFC East. I remember how hard it was to play in Philadelphia, Washington and New York. There is just no way as a player to go in there thinking you will dominate. In order to win this division, the Eagles will have to win at home and steal a couple on the road.

Philadelphia Eagles (Last season: 12-4, 1st)

Players to watch: Terrell Owens
There are a number of players to watch in Philadelphia. I don't necessarily think it is on the field, but rather off of it. The first one that comes to mind is Owens. He is going to be the bell cow for this offense and Philadelphia is counting on him to take the pressure off Donovan McNabb. But what kind of body language will Owens have and what message will he send to his teammates? Everyone will be watching.

Owens did the smart thing by forcing the trade to Philadelphia because he went to a similar offensive system. I wouldn't be surprised if he caught over 100 passes this season and had his normal 10-15 touchdowns.

Burning question: Will Brian Westbrook continue to develop?
Now that McNabb has Owens, Westbrook can round out a dominant offense. The Eagles will give him some carries and throw to him out of the backfield. Westbrook has made his mark as an explosive return man, but he has more to give.

Bottom line:
The Eagles did lose a number of players this offseason, but they should be better after adding a talented pass rusher like Jevon Kearse and a weapon like Owens. There is no better defensive end in the league than Kearse and he should realize his potential in Philadelphia. And Owens is in a good situation with the Eagles, going to an offensive system similar to the 49ers. That should help him avoid the up-and-down performances that we often see when superstars switch teams.

Dallas Cowboys (Last season: 10-6, 2nd)

Players to watch: Eddie George and Vinny Testaverde
Can these two veterans provide the leadership the Cowboys have sorely missed? Dallas hasn't had a featured running back since Emmitt Smith and hasn't had a leader at quarterback since Troy Aikman. Now the Cowboys have both with George and Testaverde – two veterans who have the chance to take a good young team to the next level.

Parcells has always attracted veterans because he doesn't put them in situations in which they have to perform outside of their ability. These two are a perfect fit for a Parcells system.

Burning question: Can Keyshawn Johnson find the end zone?
If Johnson can get back to the touchdown output that he had with the New York Jets under Parcells, the Cowboys offense has a chance to match its dominant defense. Their defense, possibly the best in the NFL, has kept them competitive. Johnson is a great receiver underneath and should excel in the red zone. If that happens, Terry Glenn will be more effective as a deep threat, George will have more room to run and the Cowboys could challenge the Eagles.

Bottom line:
Parcells did an excellent job in his first season and Dallas' players have completely bought into his system. The second season is when he really takes full control and makes headway. He has the veterans to lead a good young team. But can those older players stay healthy and effective?

Washington Redskins (Last season: 5-11, 3rd)

Player to watch: Joe Gibbs
He's not a player, but Gibbs is the man to watch in Washington. Has the league changed that much during his 11-year absence? And can he develop a dominant rushing game with Clinton Portis? He will find some differences once Week 1 rolls around, but they won't be too much to overcome. Fans in Washington should be excited because they have a good leader and a winner in Gibbs.

Burning question: Can the secondary live up to its potential?
New arrivals Shawn Springs and first-round draft pick Sean Taylor have the potential to be great. The Seattle Seahawks gave up on Springs and now the former first-round pick has the chance to start over in Washington. Taylor is one of the most exciting and talented safeties to come into the league in the last 10 years. Can this duo make up for the loss of Champ Bailey and be a dominant secondary?

Bottom line:
Players in Washington are excited entering the season with Gibbs in charge. He is a proven commodity and brings immediate credibility. Former coach Steve Spurrier brought a great college resume, but that doesn't always carry over to the NFL. The players didn't seem to believe in the program he was running. But now the players know that Gibbs is in control instead of owner Daniel Snyder.

New York Giants (Last season: 4-12, 4th)

Player to watch: Kurt Warner
Everyone will have their eyes on rookie Eli Manning, but they won't see him unless Warner begins to falter. If that happens, it won't take long for coach Tom Coughlin to pull the trigger and put Manning in there.

Warner is a streaky quarterback and he needs to start well. The Giants open with five tough games (at PHI, WAS, CLE, at GB, at DAL) which will really determine Warner's future. Can he get hot and return to his MVP form or is he just biding time for Manning?

Burning question: Is discipline enough?
Will Coughlin's discipline result in wins? I am sure the players initially will fight the discipline, but eventually they will buy into his system. Coughlin is a good coach and had success in Jacksonville. In the long run, the players will be better for it.

Bottom line:
The Giants will definitely have more discipline under Coughlin. But the coach can only do so much in preparing the team week-in, week-out. It is up to the players to make up their mind to turn it around. And the Giants have a long way to go.

Cris Carter is Yahoo! Sports' NFL analyst. Send Cris a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Saturday, Aug 21, 2004 12:08 pm, EDT

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