After a disappointing season in which every team within the division finished BELOW .500, is the NFC East due for a resurgence now that their residents can claim a cleaner bill of health, and if that’s the case, will it be the Cowboys finally meeting their annual expectations, or will Washington prove that last year was indeed no fluke???
It hasn’t happened very frequently, folks, but last season saw the ENTIRE NFC East finish below .500, with each of the division’s four denizens posting a losing record, which had only occurred TWICE since divisional realignment back in 2002. Difficult schedules coupled with catastrophic injuries to star players (I.E. Dak Prescott and Saquon Barkley) effectively sunk the campaigns of two of their number (Dallas and New York), while festering drama and mismanagement curtailed any attempt by the reigning champion Eagles to take advantage of the misfortune of their rivals. However, that left the door open for the Washington Football Team, who overcame their own controversies and drama to vault themselves ahead of their troubled neighbors, claiming their first NFC East crown since 2015. With that said, now that all four teams can boast a cleaner bill of health and are currently enjoying a proper Offseason (which is significant given that three of them welcomed new Coaching Staffs in 2020), will we see marked improvement across the board? Will Dallas finally meet their (lofty) annual expectations? Will Washington build upon their surprise run? Does less controversy equate to success for the Eagles? Is the Giants’ rebuilding project finally ready for Phase 2? Let’s take a trip around the division and if any of these teams will be able to put last year’s disappointment behind them…
The Favorite: Dallas Cowboys
For a franchise that was looking to turn the page with a new Coaching Staff headlined by Mike McCarthy, it was hard to imagine the veteran skipper’s first campaign in Dallas going much worse than the 6-10 finish suffered in 2020. A prolonged contract dispute with (Pro Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott dominated the news cycle during the Offseason, with the 27-year old’s run coming to an abrupt end due to a broken leg suffered after just five games. Unfortunately, that would be far from the only significant loss that the roster would suffer, with (All-Pro Offensive Linemen) Tyron Smith and Zack Martin alongside (young Linebacker) Leighton Vander Esch all missing multiple games with various maladies. And then there was the Defense headed by Mike Nolan, which proved to be a poor fit from the word go. Simply put, his schemes were incompatible with the roster at his disposal, and the product on the field certainly reflected that notion; the Cowboys allowed 29.6 points per game (28th Overall) on 386.4 total yards (23rd Overall), including a dismal 158.8 yards against the run, second-worst in the league. Now heading into 2021, Dallas has a different air about them; with a clean bill of health, Prescott’s future has been confirmed following his mammoth four-year, $160 million contract (including $126 million in guarantees), while (former Falcons’ Head Coach) Dan Quinn was hired to curate the Defense. With a wealth of weapons at the skill positions, Prescott should build upon an attack that averaged a stellar 32.6 points on 488.0 total yards in the five games prior to his injury, and the defensive personnel’s familiarity with the Seattle scheme ran by (former Defensive Assistant) Kris Richard should bode well for Quinn, who ran that particular scheme to perfection back in 2013 and 2014 with the Seahawks. Finally, a proper and full Offseason of conditioning and training should work wonders for McCarthy and his Staff, who were dealt zero favors due to the effects of the pandemic. With Prescott healthy and in Big D for the foreseeable future and necessary changes made on the defensive side of the football, there is no reason to expect that the Cowboys won’t improve upon last season’s woeful finish, for this remains easily the most talented team within the NFC East with the fewest question marks. However, it remains to be seen just how far that talent will take them within the conference as a whole.
The Contender: Washington Football Team
Given all the issues that the Cowboys, Giants, and Eagles suffered through in 2020, the door was left wide open for Washington to make a move, and after getting their own house in order, they did exactly that as they earned their first NFC title since 2015. With that said, it was far from an easy road to capturing division glory; with (Owner) Daniel Snyder coming under fire for a variety of reasons, Washington abdicated their longtime identity in favor of wearing a temporary one while simultaneously welcoming in a newly structured Front Office alongside a brand-new Coaching Staff spearheaded by Ron Rivera. The 59-year old performed an absolutely commendable job as he managed to change the atmosphere in the nation’s capital, building a culture within a franchise that had long been branded toxic, all the while fighting his own personal battle with cancer. Rallying back from a disappointing 1-5 start, they won six of their final ten games down the stretch, as Washington made it’s move to ensure a playoff birth, and now look to prove that last year’s run was indeed no fluke. However, there are still legitimate questions to be answered. With (veteran Quarterback) Alex Smith no longer with the franchise, will they manage to coax a solid season out of (journeyman) Ryan Fitzpatrick? Were they right to forego the pursuit of any of the top passers in the Draft? The 38-year old has managed to make an impression wherever he’s landed, and even at this stage of his career appears to be an upgrade over the other options on the roster, even if he figures to be merely a short-term one. The bearded one should benefit from the fact that this will be the first place that he’s been in in quite a while where he wasn’t serving as a bridge to a younger, more promising Quarterback. Needless to say, it’s not often that he’s been afforded the luxury of feeling this comfortable. After a pair of solid Drafts have netted them (Defensive Rookie of the Year) Chase Young (7.5 Sacks), as well as (explosive Receiver) Terry McLaurin (1,118 Yards), Washington chose to continue building via that particular method, adding (athletic Linebacker) Jamin Davis, (Offensive Lineman) Samuel Cosmi, and (versatile Receiver) Dyami Brown to further bolster their ranks. A tougher schedule coupled with what should be stiffer competition within the division will make repeating far more difficult for this Football Team, but for all intents and purposes they remain ahead of schedule considering how arduous their rebuild appeared less than a year ago, which makes a return to the Playoffs not so unrealistic.
The Wild Card: New York Giants
Meanwhile, the natives are getting restless in the Big Apple where the Giants remarkably continue to find themselves mired in what feels like the early stages of a rebuild despite enduring their third coaching change in four years. Though (Head Coach) Joe Judge acclimated himself rather well to the job in his first year in the Meadowlands (particularly given how little fanfare he arrived to), the fact still remains that this is a franchise that simply hasn’t managed to get out of the opening act of this story. Last season was always going to be difficult given the effects of COVID-19 on every team undergoing a change in leadership, but the season-ending injury to (2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year) Saquon Barkley was a blow that New York couldn’t rebound from; the versatile Tailback was for all intents and purposes the fulcrum of the attack, having amassed a league-best 3,469 yards from scrimmage through the first two years of his career, only to succumb to a torn ACL just two games into the 2020 campaign, effectively sinking any chances that a fledgling Offense had of developing into something formidable. Without their greatest weapon, the Giants ranked next-to-last in both points (17.5) and total yards (319.0), with (Sophomore Quarterback) Daniel Jones failing to launch in his second year as the starter. Though he showed glimpses of his potential under (new Offensive Coordinator) Jason Garrett, Jones continued his penchant for committing turnovers tossing nearly as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (11), while also fumbling on eleven occasions to boot, with many of these crushing giveaways coming within the Red Zone, which is the greatest sin that a Quarterback can commit in the eyes of a coach. Big Blue are banking on a full Offseason under Garrett’s watch coupled with a healthy dose of a healthy Barkley will help Jones take the necessary steps towards becoming the franchise passer that the team envisioned when they shocked the league and selected him Sixth Overall back in the 2019 Draft. Fortunately, the Defense made strides under Judge and (Defensive Coordinator) Patrick Graham, allowing a very respectable 22.3 points (9th Overall) on 349.3 total yards (12th Overall), with twenty-two takeaways (10th Overall) and forty sacks (12th Overall). Retaining the services of (Pro-Bowl Defensive Tackle) Leonard Williams (11.5 Sacks) was essential to the project, while newcomers Blake Martinez (151 TKL) and James Bradberry (3 INT) were shrewd signings in Free Agency. If Garrett can get the Offense to stop shooting themselves in the foot, then the Giants can absolutely challenge for the NFC East crown (their Defense is playoff-caliber), but their hopes of doing so are exclusively tied to the progress of their Quarterback, who remains their biggest question mark.
The Rest: Philadelphia Eagles
Though it was only four years ago that the Eagles stunned the football world and hoisted their first Lombardi Trophy, it feels like decades have passed since that triumphant night in February, 2018. That’s because you would be hard-pressed to recognize this current incarnation of Philadelphia, who have finally thrown in the towel in favor of rebuilding. How did they arrive to this point, you ask? Well, given the circumstances that left the NFC East without a single team above .500, it was absolutely remarkable that the Eagles simply couldn’t make a run within a Division that afforded them every opportunity to do so. Simply put, the rest of the East may as well have rolled out a red carpet for them to waltz towards what would have been a third first place finish in four years, if only they had managed to refrain from tripping over their own two feet. While injuries once again decimated the Receiving Corps and the Offensive Line, (Quarterback) Carson Wentz authored what was clearly the most disappointing campaign of his once promising career, clashing with the Coaching Staff throughout a season filled with drama, ultimately ending with the ousting of both Wentz and (Head Coach) Doug Pederson, with the franchise excising all toxic personalities from the building. Needless to say, something was clearly broken within the team, and the Front Office moved to start fresh following an approach that can only be described as scorched Earth. Replacing Pederson is Nick Sirianni, who had spent the previous three years as Offensive Coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts. Though his Introductory Press Conference drew the ire of the Philly Faithful, the 40-year old’s primary task will be rebuilding the culture within a toxic locker room, while also developing (Sophomore Quarterback) Jalen Hurts, who showed flashes of his playmaking ability during four starts late last season. While the youngster has certainly earned the favor of his teammates, it remains to be seen if he can deliver in the win column, with an overhauled supporting cast looking to develop the requisite chemistry with their Quarterback that their predecessor clearly lacked. The Eagles hope that last year’s First Round Pick, Jalen Raegor (396 Yards) will indeed pop as a Sophomore, while this year’s top selection, (Heisman winner) DeVonta Smith, will help turn a weakness into a strength; of their 233.0 yards per game through the air, Wideouts only accounted for a mere 188.2 yards, the fewest in the NFC East and second-fewest in the league as a whole. If Sirianni can get this Receiving Corps up and running, then Hurts could very well make the fan base forget all about Wentz, but if the passing game continues to falter then it will be another long season for Philadelphia with the boo birds out in full force.