Programming Note: I'm Moving to a New Blogging Home

Moving to a new web home.

Just a quick note to let readers know that I'm moving to a new home here at SportsBlog.com. The new site is BroomOnTheWarpath.sportsblog.com.

I'm excited about the move. The new site will be heavily focused on the Redskins, naturally, but will also offer the opportunity to write about other DC sports teams.

I invite you to join me at my new web home to talk Redskins football...and other stuff.

Five Keys for the Redskins to Beat the Rams

Converted TE Niles Paul could have a bigger role in the Washington offense in week 2 agains the Rams. Zuma Press/Icon SMI

The talk in DC this week has been about how the Redskins "should win" this weekend's game against the St. Louis Rams. Such talk makes me nervous -- for the past several seasons, the pre-game talk in most cities has been about how their team "should win" against the Redskins. Coming off 3 consecutive sub-.500 seasons (4 straight years with a negative scoring differential -- a more meaningful measure of team strength than record), the Skins (and their fans) have no business talking about any game as a "should win" proposition.

That's not to say that Washington shouldn't be favored. They appear to be the better team, and they'll kickoff as 3.5-point favorites Sunday afternoon. But, anyone can beat anyone in the NFL, especially a team like the Redskins, which hasn't shown the ability in the past few seasons to follow up a strong performance one week with a strong performance the next.

So, here are five keys to Washington beating the St. Louis Rams and running their record to 2-0:

  1. Control Chris Long -- Long took a couple years to hit his stride after being picked 2nd overall in the 2008 draft, but the defensive end has emerged as a pass-rushing force. He has increased his sack total each year of his career -- last season he had 13. The job of stopping him from crushing rookie QB Robert Griffin III falls primarily to Tyler Polumbus, the street free agent Washington picked up in mid-season last year. Polumbus struggled in both run and pass protection last week, so I'd anticipate seeing the coaching staff giving him some help -- at minimum with some chip blocks from tight ends and/or running backs.
  2. Find the Tight Ends Early and Often -- Last season, the Rams allowed just 33 receiving yards per game to opposing tight ends. In week one, the Lions torched them for 126. The Redskins tight ends were fairly quiet against the Saints, but Fred Davis and Niles Paul are potentially dangerous weapons. Paul, in particular, has a unique combination of size and speed that makes him a tough matchup for opposing linebackers and safeties. I anticipate seeing the Skins finding ways to target him Sunday against the Rams.
  3. Shut Down the St. Louis Receivers -- On defense, Washington has a good line and first-rate linebackers. Their secondary: sucks. The Rams lack playmakers in their receiving corps, but the Redskins lackluster defensive backs still must play well to shut them down. A good pass rush will help, but they're still going to need to cover better than they did in the preseason and against the Saints.
  4. Beat Up Sam Bradford -- A good way to limit the Rams' passing attack will be to knock the quarterback down with regularity. The St. Louis offensive line was iffy even before injuries to a couple starters. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan was virtually unstoppable against New Orleans, and Brian Orakpo was nearly as good. If the Redskins can get to Bradford consistently, the St. Louis passing game will grind to a halt.
  5. Solid Play from RG3 -- Griffin was terrific against the Saints -- arguably the best rookie debut performance in league history. He probably won't be that good against St. Louis, but then he really doesn't need to be. If he can make good decisions, throw the ball with accuracy and use his feet to stay out of trouble, there's enough on film to make this offense score regularly.
There are a few things I'd like to see this week from the Skins. Chief among them, a better ground attack. Last week, they ground out yardage, but it took a TON of carries. Rookie Alfred Morris carried much of the load, but admitted in post-game interviews that he didn't gain as many yards as he could have because he too often took the wrong path when carrying the ball. Morris is a sturdy physical runner, but if he can't correct that issue, the Skins will need to turn back to Evan Royster and Roy Helu.

On the defensive side, I'm hoping to see better play from Jarvis Jenkins. Jenkins showed great promise in the team's 2011 training camp before wrecking his knee in a preseason game. He's working his way back, but hasn't returned to that "immovable force" style of play yet.

Perhaps my biggest worry for Sunday is returner Brandon Banks. He's an exciting player, but fumbles way too much for my taste. Last week, he laid the ball on the ground twice, which has to be cause for concern. If he can't hang on to the ball, Washington will need to find someone else to return kicks.

Prediction

Washington Redskins 27
St. Louis Rams 18

Redskins RGIII Quickly On His Way

Robert Griffin III celebrates his first career touchdown pass. Manny Flores/Icon SMI

The Redskins opened the season by going to New Orleans and defying nearly everyone's expectations, including mine. They thumped the Saints -- a team that was supposed to be fired up after being put through the Bounty Gate wringer -- with an artificially narrow margin of victory. Even as the Saints rallied to make the score closer, the Skins' remained firmly in control of the game.

The post-game chatter was mainly about rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who merely had the best rookie opener in league history. Helped by an imaginative gameplan from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Griffin looked every bit a superstar in the making. There were three specific things I particularly liked about his performance last Sunday:

  1. Quick Release: The last first round QB in Washington was Jason Campbell, whose throws went something like this: That guy's open...I should throw...windup...and...there it goes. And by the time all that happens, the receiver is covered or Campbell got hit, or something. With Griffin, it goes like this: Open? FIRE! When he decides to throw, the ball is gone -- with velocity.
  2. Quick Reads: Traditionally, the problem with rookie quarterbacks has not been physical. That is to say, youngsters were more than capable to play in the NFL. The trouble was between the ears. The game happens fast, and young QBs often have trouble reading coverages and recognizing which receiver is likely to be open. Griffin seemed to know before the snap where he wanted to go with the ball, and -- even better -- didn't lock in on his primary receiver. On the long touchdown throw, Pierre Garcon was not the primary target. The play was designed to go to tight end Niles Paul.
  3. Quick Feet: One of Griffin's major selling points coming out of college was his world class speed. The Skins offensive staff made good use of that mobility with designed runs, boot legs and read options. Griffin also used his legs to stretch plays out when receivers were initially covered -- usually not to run, but rather to wait for a receiver to break free downfield. 
It'll be interesting to see what happens from here. The Skins showed little of their offense in the preseason, which meant the Saints couldn't study any film and prepare. They were constantly adapting, and by the time they'd figured out a way to stop one offensive concept, the Skins were on to the next.

In theory, life should get tougher for the offense going forward as defensive coordinators are able to study film. However, the Skins still have other concepts planned that they haven't used yet. Plus, with an array of strategies available, defenses have to prepare for all of them. Yes, the Redskins might curtail designed runs for Griffin, but defenses still have to be ready for those plays. And, Washington can always go "conventional" because a) the Shanahan offensive system has proven successful in the NFL, and b) Griffin is an excellent passer.

All that said, there will be hiccups along the way. He's not going to be great every week. The test for Griffin is the same as it is for every player who has a great game: to do it again. Not necessarily to be "great" every game, but to play with consistent excellence. Pro sports is littered with players who had one great game. Great players are the guys who perform well repeatedly.

My feeling is that Griffin is going to end up in that latter group -- the great players who sustain excellence for years. It's gonna be fun to watch.

Washington Redskins: 2012-2013 Preview

This season in Washington is mostly about the development of Robert Griffin III. Zuma Press/Icon SMI

After a disappointing 2011 campaign, the Redskins consoled themselves with dreams of a dramatically retooled roster. They traded a king's ransom for the second pick in the draft, which they used on Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. They prepped for a targeted free agent spending binge using the cap space they'd carved out in the previous two seasons.

And then, just 12 hours before free agency was to commence, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell yanked the rug from under the Skins, penalizing the team $36 million in cap space ($18 million this season and $18 million next season) for moves the Skins made in the league's uncapped 2010 season. The league office told the Redskins brass that the team had broken no rules and had done nothing wrong, but that they would be penalized anyway for violating the league's illegal agreement to limit player salaries during that uncapped year, and for gaining an "unfair" competitive advantage in future years. Yeah, I'm still bitter.

Abruptly left with far fewer free agent dollars, Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen turned to plan B, which basically involved not signing the guys they'd hoped to sign, and signing "bargains" instead. We'll see.

Here's a quick rundown of the team, unit by unit:

  • Quarterback: The change from one RGIII (Rex Grossman) to another (umm...Robert Griffin III) is the move that grabbed the most attention all offseason. Now it's time to see if Griffin actually is an improvement over Grossman. While hopes and expectations are astronomical for Griffin, keep in mind that rookie QBs aren't usually winners. Griffin is likely to struggle at times this season -- Skins fans need to keep that in mind. The other rookie, Kirk Cousins, looked good in preseason and showed the makings of a solid NFL backup. Unit: IMPROVED
  • Running Back: Washington went into last season intending to lean heavily on Tim Hightower, whom they acquired in an offseason trade. Backing him up were a couple rookies: Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. Then Hightower wrecked his knee, and Helu and Royster each were productive runners when given the opportunity to play. This season, Hightower's knee still isn't right, so they cut him. That leaves Royster, Helu and rookie Alfred Morris to share the position. The coaching staff released a depth chart, but pay no attention to that -- they plan to play whoever they think is doing the best work. They won't even say who's going to start Sunday (my guess is Morris). Despite the lack of a household name, there's no reason to worry: Shanahan has a long history of finding productive runners for his offensive system. Unit: ABOUT THE SAME.
  • Offensive Line: I went into the offseason thinking this was actually the team's biggest need -- even ahead of QB. Perhaps because of the salary cap penalty, perhaps because the line actually performed decently in the last few weeks of the season, the Skins added some depth, but didn't bring in the 2-3 new starters I thought they needed. The line that ended last season is basically the one that will start this one. Washington even brought back Jammal Brown, who's been struggling with a bad hip for the past 3 years. I'm going to call the line slightly improved because they added some depth, but the line is still past-due for a major overhaul. Unit: SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT.
  • Wide Receiver: The team added two new starters in Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and they're getting back Leonard Hankerson, who had been showing signs of production before hurting his hip last season. Santana Moss, long miscast as the team's #1 receiver, is going to be playing in the slot more often -- a perfect role for his size and physical abilities. Dezmon Briscoe -- a guy who caught 6 TD passes as a rookie -- is on the roster as a 5th receiver. Unit: IMPROVED.
  • Tight End: A week before final cutdowns, Washington released TE stalwart and fan favorite Chris Cooley. It was a sad moment, but unsurprising given Cooley's injury problems the past few seasons and his high salary. Fred Davis is back from his substance abuse suspension on a one-year "show me" deal. Niles Paul converted from WR, and is exciting coaches with his speed, agility and pass-catching ability from the TE spot. Logan Paulsen is an earth-moving blocker. Unit: IMPROVED.
  • Defensive Line: This is basically the same group as last year with one big exception -- last year's 2nd round pick, Jarvis Jenkins. Jenkins hurt his knee in the 2011 preseason and missed the entire season. He's a load at DE in the 3-4 and will be pushing starter Adam Carriker for playing time. Chris Baker replaces the Chris Neild as the reserve nose tackle. This is a position Washington addressed last year, and the free agents (Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen) still look terrific along the line. Unit: SAME.
  • Linebackers: Like the defensive line, the linebacking corps is largely unchanged. Like the d-line, that's a good thing. The front 7 was a strength, and the Skins didn't try to fix what wasn't broken. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are back on the edges. They re-signed the ageless London Fletcher in the middle. Rising star Perry Riley is back as well. Improvement will come from the individual players getting better: Orakpo working on his pass rushing skills; Kerrigan building on an outstanding rookie year; Riley returning as a full-time starter. Unit: IMPROVED.
  • Cornerback: The starters are the same -- DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson. The backups have changed, and maybe Cedric Griffin is a slight upgrade over what they had last year. Richard Crawford is a rookie who showed promise in camp, but...like all rookies...hasn't seen real NFL action yet. CB remains a relatively weak part of the Washington roster. Unit: SAME.
  • Safety: In many ways, the Skins have never really recovered from the murder of Sean Taylor. Last year, Washington hoped to pair Laron Landry with Oshiomogho Atogwe, but neither guy could stay healthy. The team parted ways with both during the offseason. They likely hoped to use some free agency money to address the position, but ended up pulling Brandon Merriweather and Madieu Williams off the scrap heap. Merriweather hurt a knee in preseason and the team is likely back to Reed Doughty. Second year man DeJon Gomes is pushing Williams for that free safety job. Unit: SIGNIFICANTLY WORSE.
  • Special Teams: The only change from last year's group is kicker Billy Cundiff replacing Graham Gano. I didn't see the point in that change (Cundiff is basically an older version of Gano), but it can't be viewed as a step back. Sav Rocca is a solid punter. Brandon Banks is back as the punt and kickoff returner, which makes lots of fans happy...but not me. I thought Banks made more bad plays in the return game than good, and that he frequently cost the team field position with poor decision making and his lack of size and strength. I'd have rather seen them go a different direction in the return game. Unit: SAME.
Overall, the Redskins should be better this season than they were last year. They're better on offense, and their defense should be solid again -- if the secondary can hold up. They're not as far along as they could have been if they hadn't been hammered with that preposterous salary cap penalty. I seriously doubt they'd have gone into the season with such a gaping hole at safety and without adding a starter or two on the offensive line.

Still, let's keep in mind that Washington is starting a rookie QB. I expect the Skins to make progress this year, although it may not show fully in the team's record. This season is primarily about one thing: the development of Robert Griffin III. If Griffin is on the path to NFL greatness, Washington is likely to be a relevant team for the next 10-15 years. If not...they're in serious trouble.

Predictions
  1. @ New Orleans: L 0-1
  2. @ St. Louis: W 1-1
  3. Cincinnati: W 2-1
  4. @ Tampa Bay: W 3-1
  5. Atlanta: L 3-2
  6. Minnesota: W 4-2
  7. @ New York Giants: L 4-3
  8. @ Pittsburgh: L 4-4
  9. Carolina: W 5-4
  10. Philadelphia: L 5-5
  11. @ Dallas: L 5-6
  12. New York Giants: W 6-6
  13. Baltimore: L 6-7
  14. @ Cleveland: W 7-7
  15. @ Philadelphia: L 7-8
  16. Dallas: L 7-9

Redskins Miss the Point When They Gave Gano the Boot

Did the Redskins replace Graham Gano with an older version of himself? Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMI

I went into writing this post thinking the Skins might have screwed up when they abruptly changed kickers -- going from a Graham Gano vs. Neil Rackers competition (which Gano apparently won) to cutting Gano and replacing him with Billy Cundiff, who'd been cut by the Ravens.

When I dug a bit deeper, the evidence suggests to me that there really wasn't much point in making the move, except for one thing (which I'll get to in a moment).

Since 2000, 30 NFL kickers have at least 50 field goal attempts in their first three seasons. Gano ranks 26th in accuracy -- in a virtual tie with guess who...Billy Cundiff. In his first 3 seasons, Cundiff converted on 55-74 FGA -- 74.3%. Gano was 59-80, 73.8%. In effect, the Redskins swapped Gano for an older version of himself.

And, just worth mentioning, Cundiff really hasn't gotten more accurate: his career average after 8 seasons is 76.7%.

Weirdly, the guy who ranks 30th among those 30 kickers? Neil Rackers, who's been more accurate throughout his career than either Gano or Cundiff.

There's just no "big difference" between Gano and Cundiff, however. One small difference is that Cundiff has generated more touchbacks on kickoffs than Gano -- although it's difficult to say whether that's because of a stronger leg or because of strategic decisions (directional kickoffs, intentionally short kickoffs to force a return).

Back in 2011, Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats analyzed the value of Cundiff's kickoffs and found that his 40 touchbacks were worth 20 quarterback sacks in terms of the field position advantage they gave his team. Burke hasn't updated his analysis, so there's no information on whether that same relationship held true when kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line last season.

For the sake of discussion, I'm going to assume that 2 touchbacks equals 1 sack -- the ratio Burke found in 2011. Last season, Cundiff posted 43 touchbacks -- equivalent to 21.5 QB sacks. Gano had 32 touchbacks -- equivalent to 16.0 sacks.

Given the leg strength Gano exhibited in Washington, it's hard to believe the touchback difference is a result of Cundiff having a significantly more powerful foot.

In effect, Washington has replaced the 25-year old Gano with a 32-year old version of...Gano. Albeit one who has a stronger history of generating touchbacks.

Honestly, it's hard to see the point of making the move. My feeling was that the Skins had gone through growing pains with Gano and that given his age and power, it made sense to keep him until they could find someone demonstrably better. 

Rushmore Sunday: The NFC East Punters

Rushmore Sunday: NFC East Punters.

It's Sunday, which means it's time for another edition of Rushmore Sunday -- a look at the greatest players in NFC East history, position by position. So far, we've delved into quarterbacks, cornerbacks, talent evaluators, running backs, wide receivers, safeties, offensive linemen, linebackers, coaches, tight ends, returners and kickers. We'll stay with special teams for one more week, this time looking at the guys who can help a team win the field position battle: the punters.

The Rushmore Rules are simple: pick the four who most deserve being part of the division pantheon. No more than four, no fewer than four.

Here's my Rushmore of NFC East punters:

  • Sammy Baugh, Washington Redskins -- There was a time when punters weren't specialists, and here's something crazy to consider: while Baugh was the league's best QB and one of the best safeties, he may also have been the greatest punter in league history. Baugh went to 6 Pro Bowls and was All-Pro 1st team 4 times. True, those honors weren't strictly for punting, but he stopped playing in 1952 and he still ranks 6th all-time in yards per punt (minimum 250 career punts).
  • Mat McBriar, Dallas Cowboys -- McBriar is one of the more underrated specialists around. He led the league in yards per punt in 2006 and 2010, went to two Pro Bowls and is a two-timer on the AP All-NFL team. He stands 5th all-time in yards per punt yet, Dallas sent him packing after last season, and Philly cut him in the preseason. Still, McBriar makes the punting pantheon.
  • Don Chandler, New York Giants (also Green Bay Packers) -- A punter/kicker, Chandler played in the first two overtime games in NFL history. His game-winner for the Packers against the Colts was controversial (many thought it was wide right), but the guys who mattered (the refs) thought it was good. He was the league's all-decade punter for the 60s, and he went to the Pro Bowl in 1967. He's currently 22nd all-time in yards per punt.
  • Sean Landeta, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles (also St. Louis, Green Bay  and Tampa Bay) -- No list of great NFC East punters would be complete without Landeta, who stayed in the NFL for 21 years. He was first team All-Pro 3 times and a two-time Pro Bowler.

Commemorative Plaques

These are the guys who were close to the pantheon, but not quite in it. While they don't get their likeness dynamited into the side of a cliff, they at least rate a high-quality commemorative plaque hung at a popular viewing area. The plaques go to:

  • Matt Turk, Washington Redskins (also Houston, Miami, Jacksonville, New York Jets, St. Louis)
  • Sam Baker, Philadelphia Eagles (also Washington, Cleveland and Dallas)
  • Dave Jennings, New York Giants (also New York Jets
  • Adrian Burk, Philadelphia Eagles (also Baltimore Colts)
  • Jeff Feagles, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles (also Seattle, Arizona and New England)
  • Danny White, Dallas Cowboys
So, that's the Rushmore List of NFC East punters. Who should move from the "commemorative plaques" section and who should come down from the cliff? Who's not on the list that should be there? Post your list in the comments. Just remember, you get only four selections, so if you want to add someone, one of the guys I chose needs to come down. There's only room for four.  

Around the NFC East: News & Notes, 9/2/12

Could Chris Cooley return to the Skins so soon after being released? Jim Cowsert/Icon SMI

With final preseason games, final cuts, and...oh yeah...a Wednesday night season opener featuring an NFC East throwdown between the Giants and Cowboys, let's jump right into the division's news and notes that caught my attention this week:

Giants

  • Not a shock, but in their final roster moves, the Giants put CB Terrell Thomas on injured reserve. Thomas has talent, but has been cursed with injuries. This will be his 2nd consecutive season missed due to injury -- this time because he couldn't recover from last year's knee surgery.
  • Also going to injured reserve (meaning he'll miss the full season) is DT Shaun Rogers. Rogers suffered blood clots in his left calf, which will require blood-thinning medication. NFL violence is a no-no for someone on this kind of medication. 
  • WR Hakeem Nicks, who had been slowly working his way back from a broken foot, appeared in the final preseason game and reported no lingering effects. He's expected to be ready for the season opener with no restrictions.

Eagles

  • The name that jumped out at me from Philly's cut list was QB Mike Kafka. Most (including me) thought he'd be the team's #2 QB, but impressive preseason performances from rookie Nick Foles and veteran Trent Edwards sent Kafka packing. Perhaps most surprising was that Andy Reid couldn't figure out a trade to get a draft pick or two in exchange for Kafka.
  • With his release Friday, Oshiomogho Atogwe has now been cut by two NFC East teams. He was a free agent signee last season in Washington, who cut him early in the offseason after an injury-plagued, unproductive season. He couldn't stay healthy during Philly's training camp either -- not a good sign for a 31-year old player.
  • If Michael Vick looks a bit more rotund this season, it's not him. Really. To try and reduce some of the injuries he's suffered, Vick is going to thicker padding. He's been wearing Kevlar pads from Unequal Technologies, and expects to have the thicker stuff by the opener.

Cowboys

  • The only real surprise cut from JerryWorld was WR Danny Coale, a 5th round pick this year. Coale was expected to compete for the #3 slot, but was outplayed by Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley and Andre Holmes.
  • Bubble guys shouldn't get too comfortable in Dallas. They still have needs, especially along the offensive line, extra-especially at center.
  • TE Jason Witten, who suffered a lacerated spleen early in the preseason will have a scan Tuesday to determine whether he can play in the Wednesday opener. Witten says he'll play if he's cleared by doctors. He has practiced the past couple days, which is an encouraging sign. It's worth noting that Dallas did claim TE Colin Cochart off waivers from the Bengals to give them some more depth at the position.
  • Lots of attention was paid this week to the "Bryant Rules" -- a set of guidelines for WR Dez Bryant's off-field behavior. The rules include a midnight curfew, no alcohol, no strip clubs, and counseling twice a week. There will also be a permanent security presence with him. It sounds like a lot -- and it is. Reportedly, the rules came at Bryant's request. I think this is a smart move for the Cowboys in protecting a guy they've invested a lot in. I especially like the counseling aspect, which will hopefully help Bryant transition to a more independent lifestyle.

Redskins

  • Washington's final roster cuts included some surprising names. The biggest eyebrow raiser was running back Tim Hightower, who the Skins traded for last offseason. The team thought he'd be recovered enough from his ACL injury last season, but they thought wrong. It wouldn't be a shock to see Hightower brought back mid-season if his knee improves.
  • The release of WR Anthony Armstrong shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. After a promising season two years ago, Armstrong played poorly last season and then hurt his shoulder in preseason. He was claimed by the Dolphins.
  • I was mildly surprised to see some of the younger players who were released, including WR Terrence Austin, C Erik Cook, OT Willie Smith (who was claimed on waivers by the Raiders), LB Markus White, and LB Bryan Kehl. The Skins have already signed OT Tom Compton and DE Doug Worthington to the practice squad.
  • The Skins cut all the way to 52 players (the roster limit is 53), which means there's likely a signing in the very near future. Chris Cooley's return is possible -- Washington cut him so he could pursue a starting job elsewhere (which hasn't worked out for him). They could also be hunting for a safety since Tanard Jackson has been suspended indefinitely for yet another violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
  • Jackson's suspension was disappointing, but unsurprising given his history. Washington took a chance on him because he's a talented player and he had a good relationship with new secondary coach Raheem Morris. It wasn't enough. In his public comments about Jackson, Mike Shanahan always referenced Jackson's talent, but then wondered if he could be counted on. The suspension leaves Washington with Brandon Merriweather and Madieu Williams as the likely starters with DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and Jordan Bernstine as reserves.
  • In the "for what it's worth" category: The Skins reportedly tried to trade WR Anthony Armstrong to Miami for RB Steve Slaton. A logical move given Slaton's history in the Shanahan offense. Since Miami ended up cutting him, Slaton remains a possibility for the Skins. Until then, figure on the work being shared by Alfred Morris, Evan Royster and Roy Helu.
  • I'll get into this next week in my Redskins blog , but it's possible the Skins made a mistake when they jettisoned Graham Gano for Billy Cundiff. Cundiff is a solid veteran, whose booming kickoffs are more valuable than most fans know, but Gano is a youngster with a TON of promise.
  • OT Jammal Brown is still struggling with hip problems and the Skins put him on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The soonest he can return is week 7. Until then, the right tackle position will be manned by Tyler Polumbus, a street free agent they signed last season who did a solid job at that position last year.
  • The Skins traded former Maryland standout Kevin Barnes to Detroit for what is probably a late round draft pick. They used Barnes as their nickel corner last season, but didn't like his performance. This year, they shifted DeAngelo Hall to the slot role in nickel packages and switched Barnes to the outside where they figured his size would make him a better fit. But, he got outplayed by rookie Richard Crawford. The Skins cornerbacks now will be Hall, Josh Wilson, Cedric Griffin and Crawford.

Rushmore Sunday: The NFC East Kickers

It's Sunday, which means it's time for another edition of Rushmore Sunday -- a look at the greatest players in NFC East history, position by position. So far, we've delved into quarterbacks, cornerbacks, talent evaluators, running backs, wide receivers, safeties, offensive linemen, linebackers, coaches, tight ends, and returners. For this week, let's stay with special teams, but this time with the true specialists, the guys who stand around with their hands in their pockets waiting to be called on to win a game, the guys who actually put the foot in football. Yes, the kickers.

Before you start whining about how they're not real players, lemme just say: shut up. They don't hit or tackle much -- at least not lately -- unless something has gone horribly wrong, but every team makes room on their roster. And they actually get paid to be in the NFL, and last I checked, the F still stands for football. Plus, check the stats and see who scores the most points for most teams. (It's usually the kicker.) And punters play a key role in the field position battle, which is pretty important.

So, now that you've come to believe that kickers are the most important players on the field (that was easy), let's review the Rushmore Rules. It's simple: pick the four who most deserve being part of the division pantheon. No more than four, no fewer than four. They don't necessarily have to be "the best" in the literal sense of the word, but they need to be an important part of the game's lore. The job is tough again this week because there have been so many good ones in the NFC East.

Here's my Rushmore of NFC East kickers:

  • Mark Moseley, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles (also Houston and Cleveland) -- The last of the straight-on kickers, Moseley was also one of the game's all-time greats. He played in just two Pro Bowls and was first-team All-NFL just once, but he was also the league's MVP in 1982. Moseley's accuracy (which was good for his era) and range made him a vital part of two Skins Super Bowl teams (one win).
  • David Akers, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins (also San Francisco) -- You could be forgiven for forgetting about Akers' Redskins career. Washington was in the midst of kicker turmoil and Akers got all of one game and two field goal attempts. He missed both and the Skins dumped him for Eddie Murray -- a competent old guy. Akers went on to appear in 6 Pro Bowls, and was named 1st team All-NFL twice -- all for the Eagles. A powerful leg and accuracy made him a fixture in Philly for more than a decade.
  • Rafael Septien, Dallas Cowboys (also the LA Rams) -- Septien makes this list primarily for his annoying tendency to make big kicks against the Redskins. Oh yeah, he also made a Pro Bowl and was 1st team All-NFL. He led the NFL in scoring once, and was top 5 four other times.
  • Chip Lohmiller, Washington Redskins (also New Orleans and St. Louis) -- Lohmiller was an excellent kicker for several seasons, and made a passel of clutch kicks for the "Bandwagon" Skins of 1991. That season, Lohmiller led the league in scoring and appeared in the Pro Bowl. He was 2nd in scoring in three other seasons.

Commemorative Plaques

These are the guys who were close to the pantheon, but not quite in it. While they don't get their likeness dynamited into the side of a cliff, they at least rate a high-quality commemorative plaque hung at a popular viewing area. The plaques go to:

  • Pat Summerall, New York Giants (also Detroit Lions and Chicago Cardinals)
  • Tony Franklin, Philadelphia Eagles (also New England and Miami)
  • Pete Gogolak, New York Giants (also Buffalo)
  • Curt Knight, Washington Redskins
  • Lawrence Tynes, New York Giants (also Kansas City)
  • Bobby Walston, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Sam Baker, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles (also Cleveland)
So, that's the Rushmore List of NFC East kickers. Who should move from the "commemorative plaques" section and who should come down from the cliff? Who's not on the list that should be there? Post your list in the comments. Just remember, you get only four selections, so if you want to add someone, one of the guys I chose needs to come down. There's only room for four.   

Around the NFC East: News & Notes, 8/19/12

Brian Orakpo hurt his pectoral muscle against the Bears, but should be back before the season opener. ZUMA Press/Icon SMI
As teams transition from training camp to preseason, here's the NFC East news that caught my eye this week:

Giants

  • If you were worried that the Giants' defensive line wouldn't be much good this season -- stop it. Well, unless you think the Jets o-line is really that bad. I know the Jets line is a weak spot, but the Giants just clobbered 'em.
  • Rookie RB David Wilson had a nice game against the Jets. The Giants did a good job of getting him the ball in space, which highlighted his speed and acceleration. He's still fourth on the depth chart, but at least Giants fans can see why he was the team's 1st round pick. 
  • While not as bad off as the Jets, the Giants have some offensive line worries of their own. Left tackle Will Beatty's back is a chronic problem, his backups have been less than good, and the team doesn't seem to have a Plan B. Best bet is probably to move David Diehl back over from the right side (which they did for the Super Bowl run), but that leaves them weak on the right. The primary backup at right tackle is likely Sean Locklear, who was terrible in Washington last season.
  • Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers may miss the entire season with blood clots in his leg. Hopefully he gets his health taken care of and can get back on the field. In the meantime, the Giants have good depth at D-tackle. Dwayne Hendricks figures to get first crack at filling Rogers' spot.
Eagles
  • Nnamdi Asomugha was hurt in a scary practice collision. Initially there were concerns about concussion, but the injuries appear to be limited to a cut lip and a strained neck. He got back on the practice field on Thursday. The Eagles have had a lot of relatively minor injuries in preseason. Key players have missed practice time (like Mike Kafka, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin), but all are expected back well before the opener. Of course, they're still trying to figure out what to do at left tackle after Jason Peters ruptured his Achilles in the offseason. Free agent Demetress Bell has not impressed, and Bell's replacement, King Dunlap, hasn't looked good either.
  • U.S. Olympian Jeff Demps, a sprinter who won silver as part of the 4x100 relay team, filed the forms needed to declare himself eligible to play in the NFL. He's immediately a free agent, and the Eagles have at least some interest. Demps played running back at Florida where he excelled as a pass-catcher and return man. At just 5-7 and 190, he's little but then again, he's no smaller than Darren Sproles. Practice squad anyone?
Cowboys
  • Brandon Carr is looking like a possible free agent steal. He had two picks against the Chargers -- one of them just a tremendous play where he baited Philip Rivers into throwing the ball. Words that come to mind when watching Carr: smart, athletic, quick, hard-working. Those are good traits in a corner.
  • On the other side, Morris Claiborne had a meh preseason debut. He wasn't bad, but he didn't do anything impressive either. That may actually be a good sign. If a corner isn't getting picks, it's probably best if his name isn't called much at all.
  • Jason Witten will miss the remainder of the preseason at least with a lacerated spleen. That's an injury that's probably as gruesome as it sounds. I had a bout with pancreatitis a few years ago, and it ranks number one on my all-time "most pain I've experienced" list. (To put it in perspective, here's the rest of the top 5: 2) dislocated knee; 3) kidney stone; 4) rehabbing surgery for a torn rotator cuff; 5) the headaches that followed for weeks after hitting my head on a basketball floor.) Witten could miss time in the regular season depending on how quickly he heals.
  • The Cowboys say they don't want Chad Johnson, the receiver formally known as Ochocinco. Maybe they looked at some game tape from the past couple years and realized he's no good anymore.
Redskins
  • That weird repetitive noise you kept hearing from the north-central part of the country? That was Skins players saying, "Ouch!" Brian Orakpo and Brandon Merriweather both had to leave the game in the first quarter; Orakpo with an injury to the same pectoral muscle he tore last season, Merriweather with a knee. MRI exams on Sunday indicated that neither injury is serious. Whew!
  • The Skins offensive line was bad in pass protection Saturday night. They're missing three guys they'd planned on being starters: right guard Chris Chester, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Jammal Brown. They're listed in order of importance. Chester was solid last season. Lichtensteiger was considered by some to be the team's best blocker last year, but he missed most of the season with a knee injury. Brown's considered the starter, but the team's performance on the right side improved when he was replaced last season with street free agent Tyler Polumbus. Chester and Lichtensteiger are expected back before the season opener. Brown's status is still undetermined. He's trying to find a treatment that will fix the hip and avoid surgery. No luck yet.
  • The Skins secondary has to be a major concern. Jay Cutler and Jason Campbell threw for more than 200 yards in the first half. The safeties looked bad; the corners looked like they're struggling in coverage.
  • Brandon Banks did what he usually does in preseason -- he broke a big return. Last season, he was actually not very good as a kick returner. He entered camp with the instruction that he would have to win a receiving job to make the team. That's unlikely to happen -- there's just no way Banks is one of the top 5-6 receivers on the roster.
  • Alfred Morris was a surprise starter at running back Saturday night. He's a strong runner who excels at doing what works best in the zone blocking system Mike Shanahan uses: he makes a single cut and goes hard upfield. He also has that knack of falling forward when he's tackled.
  • Tim Hightower is doing more in practice lately as he recovers from a torn ACL. He's the guy they've wanted as their #1 back since they traded for him last offseason. 
  • Don't start thinking there's a QB controversy in Washington. Kirk Cousins looked good going against backups. Robert Griffin III looked so-so against starters. But Griffin is the starter, period. Cousins looks to have the makings of a solid backup if Griffin gets hurt. Otherwise, he could end up fodder in a Kevin Kolb or Matt Cassell type trade in a couple years.
  • Amusing story this week about nose tackle Chris Baker. He tore his quad last season dunking a basketball on the same day he was activated to the team's 53-man roster. The team ordered him to lose 20 pounds before this season, and he did -- arriving to camp at a svelte 331 pounds. He had a terrific training camp, and his job with the team solidified when Chris Neild tore his ACL.
  • The Washington Post had a story about Chris Cooley that will endear him to fans for life. He's been a standout tight end, of course, but at 30 years old with a growing list of injuries that have caused him to miss time, and a hefty salary -- there's been plenty of speculation that he would be released. With the Skins seeming to move on at TE, Cooley has shifted to fullback (to fill in for the injured Darrell Young). During the offseason, he apparently made it clear to the coaches that he would play any role they asked of him if it meant he could stay with the team.

Rushmore Sunday: The NFC East Return Men

Rushmore Sunday: NFC East Return Men

It's Sunday, which means it's time for another edition of Rushmore Sunday -- a look at the greatest players in NFC East history, position by position. So far, we've delved into quarterbacks, cornerbacks, talent evaluators, running backs, wide receivers, safeties, offensive linemen, linebackers, coaches and tight ends. For this week's version, let's take a look at guys who make some of the sport's most exciting and game-changing plays: the punt and kickoff return men.

The Rushmore rules are simple: pick the four who most deserve being part of the division pantheon. No more than four, no fewer than four. They don't necessarily have to be "the best" in the literal sense of the word, but they need to be an important part of the game's lore. The job is tough again this week because there have been so many good ones in the NFC East.

Here's my Rushmore of NFC East return men:

  • Brian Mitchell, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants -- A shame Mitchell couldn't play a few games for the Cowboys and make a clean sweep of the entire division. A standout quarterback at the University of Southwest Louisiana, the Redskins drafted Mitchell in the 5th round and converted him into a return man and sometime running back. Where some returners are shifty and elusive, Mitchell was a virtual bowling ball -- a tough, powerful runner who was fast and decisive and hard to get on the ground. His 13 return touchdowns (9 punts; 4 kickoffs) rank 2nd all-time behind Devin Hester, and he's currently 2nd all-time in total yardage behind only Jerry Rice. He played in just one Pro Bowl, possibly because his incessant trash talking aggravated other players around the league; but he was named to the AP All-Pro team three times.
  • Dave Meggett, New York Giants (also New England Patriots and New York Jets) -- Most return men have a few hot seasons where they generate most of their TDs, and most of those happen fairly early in the player's career. Meggett never had more than two punt return TDs in a season, but he had 8 total from 1989-1996. He appeared in two Pro Bowls.
  • Deion Sanders, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins (also Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens) -- Whether it was on punts, kickoffs or interceptions, Sanders was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. With electric speed, uncanny vision and preternatural quickness, Deion was nearly impossible to catch in the open field. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
  • Emlen Tunnell, New York Giants -- A dominating defensive back, Tunnell was also a dangerous return man who ran back 3 punts and a kickoff for scores in 1951. One of the game's all-time great players, Tunnell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.

Commemorative Plaques

These are the guys who were close to the pantheon, but not quite in it. While they don't get their likeness dynamited into the side of a cliff, they at least rate a high-quality commemorative plaque hung at a popular viewing area. The plaques go to: 

  • Mike Nelms, Washington Redskins
  • Bobby Mitchell, Washington Redskins
  • Steve Van Buren, Philadelphia Eagles
  • Bob Hayes, Dallas Cowboys
  • Mel Renfro, Dallas Cowboys
  • Timmy Brown, Philadelphia Eagles
  • DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

So, that's the Rushmore List of NFC East return men. Who should move from the "commemorative plaques" section and who should come down from the cliff? Who's not on the list that should be there? Post your list in the comments. Just remember, you get only four selections, so if you want to add someone, one of the guys I chose needs to come down. There's only room for four.