Work in Sports
NFC East hot spots
Washington loads up for shot at Super Bowl XXXV
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks will offer his insights, opinions and analysis of the NFL this season in "Bank on it," a recurring feature on CNNSI.com. Here, as part of our division-by-division NFL training camp previews, is Banks' take on the state of the NFC East.
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
It doesn't take a government study to handicap the NFC East in Washington's favor this season. If the rest of the division isn't hailing to the Redskins come late December, fireball Washington owner Daniel Snyder will be whacking heads left and right and flexing his singular executive power.
Remember, folks. This ain't a democracy.
With big money handed to the likes of Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Mark Carrier and soon-to-be millionaire LaVar Arrington, defense spending in Washington has risen higher than any other time since Reagan's first term. With backup quarterback Jeff George,offensive tackle Chris Samuels and running back Adrian Murrell added to the payroll on offense, the payoff better come in January. Or else, for coach Norv Turner's sake.
As for the rest of the NFC East, it reads like a countdown last season: Dallas, eight wins, New York, seven, Arizona, six and Philadelphia, five. Not the kind of countdown that launches big dreams. This season may feature more of the same as each of the teams look flawed in at least one key area.
The Cowboys have a new head coach in Dave Campo, but maybe the same old team on the decline. The Giants and Cardinals have both underachieved since their lone recent playoff appearance and the Eagles are likely to take the next step into the seven or eight-win range before they really make a push.
That spells Washington defending its division supremacy. In a landslide.
Arizona fans learned the hard way last year. Never trust a Snake. Just a scant few months ago, the Cardinals and promising young quarterback Jake "The Snake" Plummer looked like the team on the rise in the NFC East. After a playoff berth and the franchise's first post-season win in a million years in 1998, great things were forecast for Arizona and Plummer.
But the glory days got gory. Plummer regressed, the highly publicized defensive line never materialized as a force, and the running game ground to a halt. It all added up to a 6-10 fiasco that fit much more comfortably into the annals of Cardinal football than fans expected. Arizona doesn't want to stifle Plummer's exciting resourcefulness, but it can't afford to build its whole offense around a guy who only seems to excel when he's out of the pocket and running free.
The Cardinals need first-round running back Thomas Jones to vastly improve the ground game, thereby taking some of the burden off Plummer.
On defense, the news continues to be bad. With Eric Swann released, Simeon Rice in a contract stand-off and Andre Wadsworth suffering a setback in his recovery from knee surgery, the once feared defensive line is a shambles.
Coach Vince Tobin deserves time to fix this mess, but you get the feeling the clock is definitely ticking.
If you're thinking that firing coach Chan Gailey after two playoff berths in two seasons and trading two first-round picks to Seattle for receiver Joey Galloway smack of desperation moves, you're reading team owner Jerry Jones and the mood in Dallas correctly.
It's now or never time for the Cowboys if they're going to have one more taste of their fading dynasty. With Michael Irvin retired, and Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith not far from saying their goodbyes, Dallas doesn't have the luxury of time on its side. The round-up of Super Bowl trophies is more than likely long since over, but the Cowboys want to give it their best shot one more time.
On offense, Aikman sounds rejuvenated by the idea of returning to the attack that Dallas ran in the team's heyday. Galloway and Rocket Ismail give him two deep targets and Smith last year proved there's still some life in his powerful legs. Deion-less for the first time in several years, the Cowboys can't get by with their previous approach in the secondary. The unit needed lots of help, but got plenty in the draft and with the free-agent signing of cornerback Ryan McNeil. Another wild-card trip? Maybe. But division titles and Super Bowl crowns should remain just the stuff of memories in Dallas.
So which was the aberration, Giants fans? That 10-5-1 first-place finish of 1997 under first-year coach Jim Fassel, or the combined 15-17 showing of 1998-99?
Answering that question is what this year should be all about in the Big Apple. Either Fassel gets things headed back in the right direction, or he becomes the third guy in the job -- joining Ray Handley and Dan Reeves -- to prove that he's no Bill Parcells.
Taking a page out Parcells' book, the Giants are banking a lot on the big-back theory. First-round pick Ron Dayne should conjure up memories of Ottis Anderson once the November and December gales start blowing at the Meadowlands. At quarterback, staking your job security on Kerry Collins shoulders is risky, but it's a chance Fassel seems eager to take.
As always, the Giants have enough talent on defense to win the low-scoring games. If Michael Strahan leads the way, this is a club that could give Washington some trouble. If not, Fassel's troubles have just begun.
Lest anyone think the Redskins are going to own this division for years to come, be advised that coach Andy Reid is building something pretty good in Philly. But it's not ready for prime time just yet.
The Eagles were such a mess in Ray Rhodes' final season of 1998 that Reid should get a minimum of two years before anyone thinks of taking a temperature reading in the rebuilding process. But there are bright spots already on the horizon.
Second-year quarterback Donovan McNabb still may turn out to be the best of the high-profile Class of '99 quarterback bunch. McNabb entered a chaotic situation at midseason last year and didn't embarrass himself one bit. Running back Duce Staley gets high marks for having real ability and the coolest name going in the NFL.
On defense, No. 1 pick Corey Simon, a run-stuffer by trade, should vastly improve the team's pourous run stopping. That will take some of the pressure off the Eagles' already strong secondary. Bet you didn't know that Philly led the NFL in takeaways last season. We didn't either, but you can look it up.
What more can be said about the Redskins' boffo offseason that hasn't been said already -- by Washington owner Daniel Snyder. It's Super Bowl or bust. Understood?
The Redskins' Norv Turner is going to get to discover the age-old question in coach: Is there more pressure when you have the horses and are expected to win, or when you're short on talent and have to cut and paste your way to victory? Lost in all the hub-bub about Washington's many roster coups is this: Defense still wins championships in the NFL and the Redskins' ranked 30th in that department last season. Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, LaVar Arrington and Mark Carrier should elevate that number considerably, but it's important to remember that Washington had some holes in 1999.
On offense, you wonder if the addition of backup quarterback Jeff George won't alter the chemistry that worked so well with Brad Johnson the unquestioned starter in 1999? Johnson isn't likely to go to the whole season without being challenged at some point by George, and some critics believe Snyder will be calling the bullpen inside of a month.
In their favor, the Redskins have both the questions and the answers this season.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.