Last year the NFC East, which is comprised of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Redskins, was the worst in football. Only the Redskins had a winning record. This afforded the Cowboys the fourth overall pick, the Giants the tenth overall pick, and the Eagles the thirteenth overall pick, which they bundled with other selections and moved up to the second overall selection. What a difference a year makes. The division has eight wins between the four teams, with the only losses outside the division coming from the opening Steelers thumping of the Redskins. To put that in perspective, the NFC South has just four wins after the Monday night’s shootout between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. The AFC South is in the same position at four wins as well.
In part the teams in the NFC East have benefited from playing some sub-par competition in the opening few weeks. The Giants got to handle a Saints team that is clearly not where they were a few years ago. Both the Cowboys and Eagles dispatched the injury depleted Bears. The one glimmer that these records might be legit is the recent drubbing of the Pittsburgh Steelers by the Eagles. But let’s take a moment to step back and look at how these teams got from where they were last year to where they are now.
Dallas Cowboys: Last year 4 – 12
The Cowboys were coming off a year where they dominated and looked good in the playoffs. In fact they were a catch, that wasn’t a catch, but should have been a catch away from playing Seattle for the division title and they could have won that game. Anyway, Romo got hurt in the second game of last year and things just fell apart from there. The defense wasn’t good enough to shoulder the burden of a team with quarterbacks that were so far below par that neither of them are still with the Cowboys. Enter Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. I’m getting ahead of myself. Exit Tony Romo, again. When Romo went down in the second preseason game of the season there was a collective sense of “here we go again” around Dallas. Prescott has done nothing short of miracle work, but the benefit that Prescott had was that he had the entire preseason to work with the first team and develop a rapport. It’s partly what’s allowed him to throw for 99 passing attempts without a pick. Currently third all-time to start a career without a pick. Really impressive for a fourth-round pick that wasn’t expected to play. Elliott on the other hand was expected to be doing what he’s doing. Currently averaging over 91 yards a and close to a touchdown a game, Elliott is getting better as the season is going on. His best performance came this past week where he rushed for 140 yards and averaged nearly five yards a carry. Couple this with strong offensive line play and admirable effort from a defense that is still missing three starters due to suspensions, the Cowboys are the second most surprising team in the division at this point.
Philadelphia Eagles: Last year 7 – 9
Coming into the season there was little hope for the Eagles. They had missed the playoffs, traded away assets for players that were not working, and spent millions on players that didn’t fit. It all cost Chip Kelly his job, and many Eagles fans thought the future looked bleak. It looked even worse when Carson Wentz played poorly in the preseason and then left it with a rib injury, but the team still had Sam Bradford. In fact that had kind of always been the plan to let Bradford start and Wentz learn. After all, he was coming from a small school and hadn’t really run a pro-style offense before. Then the Eagles traded Bradford (for a king’s ransom) to the Vikings, and Wentz became the defacto starter. All he did was throw for five touchdowns to zero interceptions through his first three games, totaling 102 attempts thus far. The only guy with more is, Tom Brady, with 164 pass attempts before his first interception. By the way, Brady had an entire year in the system before he got to that number, so this is all truly impressive for young mister Wentz. But what is really setting the Eagles up for their wins has been their defense. Last year the Eagles defense was slow and tentative. This year they are fast and aggressive, and they got this way without signing any big name free agents.
New York Giants: Last year 6 – 10
The Giants felt like things were pretty good on offense last year. Despite Eli Manning’s innate ability to throw interceptions at the worst time the team was still among the offensive league leaders. The real problem, as the team saw it, was their defense. Now there are two ways you can try to address such a situation. You can draft, or you can sign free agents. The Giants opted to do both. The teams first, third, and fourth-round picks were on the defensive side of the ball. Then they went out and spent nearly $200 million dollars on free agents, the vast majority of which were on defense. That number doesn’t include the $10 million the team spent to make sure Jason Pierre-Paul didn’t become a free agent. The one key problem with what the Giants did is what they didn’t do. The offensive line garnered a lot of criticism for the amount of punishment that Eli took last year. The team didn’t draft at this position, nor did they pick anyone up of note. All the starters are the same as they were a year ago. Now many of them are younger, and another year together couldn’t make them any worse, but this could be the Achilles heel of the Giants as they move through the season. Still the team has played well, particularly on defense. The offense appears to be clicking thanks to improving play from a trio of gifted receivers.
Washington Redskins: Last year 9 – 7
“Hooray! We won the division. No need to do anything different, right?!” Had the Cowboys not come off a year where they woefully underperformed due to a key injury, and the Giants had not spent the GDP of South Carolina on their defense I’d have said returning a division winning squad might cut it. No one was expecting anything out of Philly, there was nothing to say that the free agent spending of the Giants would pay off, and Romo could have been hurt at any moment (as he was). So it wasn’t an insane thought that 9 – 7 could win this division again during the off-season. The problem is that the Redskins were 4 – 2 within their horrible division, meaning they only went 5 – 5 against everyone else. Finishing first in your division means you get paired up with the other first place finishers as part of your schedule for the coming year. So that means that the Redskins get Arizona and Carolina, instead of Buccaneers and 49ers (who the Cowboys got as a result of finishing last). Granted the Cardinals and Panthers aren’t playing well right now, but the whole point of this process is to help bring parity to the league. The one big splash the team was able to make was picking up disgruntled, Josh Norman, which actually might have been enough had the previous two facts not been facts. It hasn’t helped that Kirk Cousins hasn’t been playing well in his first two games. The turnovers can’t be ignored, but he is trailing only Drew Brees in passing yards on the season.
Regardless of what you think of any of these teams and the division there has to be a sense of wonder and optimism. If Dallas can win games with a rookie fourth-round QB then why can’t we? If the Eagles can win games after everything that happened last year with coaches and players and trades then why can’t we? If the Giants can buy a stellar defense overnight then why can’t we? If the Redskins can go from first to worst in less than a year then why can’t that happen to any team in the league (ok, maybe not the Patriots)? The season is far from over, and there is still a lot of things that could happen, but so far, this season, the NFC East is looking like a powerhouse again.