Welcome to the NFC East — home to the teams that engender the most yelling on Twitter and, not unrelated to that, where the entire division last season finished a combined 17 games under .500.
This division was a disgrace in 2020, with plenty of fans suggesting the East should forfeit their spot in the playoffs due to the proliferation of bad football by everyone involved. The East will be better this season, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be good.
Let’s start with the Dallas Cowboys, for my money the most consistently overrated team in the NFL. The last time the Cowboys made it to the playoffs was in 2018, and the last time they won the Super Bowl was in 1995. And yet! Every season, we still have a host of too-tan guys with silver hair whose entire wardrobe consists of golfwear yelling all preseason about how this is the Cowboys’ year! Sure it is, Skip or Scott or Chet or whatever your name is.
And look, I understand how it happens. Let’s talk about this year. Quarterback Dak Prescott is back, after exiting for the season in Week 5 in 2020, after he was carted off following a gruesome ankle injury. Running back Ezekiel Elliott came into camp lighter than he’s looked in a good while, and the Cowboys have an outstanding offensive line (though guard Zack Martin will likely miss Week 1, having tested positive for COVID) and probably the best receiving corps in the NFL. When healthy, their problem isn’t on the offensive side of the ball. On paper, they look like they should win the division easily.
But Dallas can never seem to get out of its own way, or develop on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball at the same time. In 2020, the Cowboys’ defense finished 27th in points allowed, 22nd in passing yards allowed per game, and wound up only ahead of the Texans in rushing yards allowed per game. That’s the reason Dan Quinn was brought in as the team’s new defensive coordinator, but whether he can simplify a scheme enough to make it effective for Dallas across the board remains to be seen. Not to mention the interior of the defensive line, which is… less than good. The good news for Quinn is that his team plays in the NFC East, a division the 6-10 Giants still had a shot at winning in Week 16 last year.
We’ll get to the Giants in a moment, but if anyone will be able to challenge the Cowboys for the division, it’s the still mascotless Washington Football Team (not that I’m complaining; mascotless is way better than what they had going on before). The WFT won the division last year with a 7-9 record, and boasts probably the best defense (and definitely the best defensive line) in the NFL, led by Chase Young, Montez Sweat, and Jonathan Allen. If you’re looking for a defense that can hang with a Dallas offense operating on all cylinders, this is the one.
The outstanding question for Ron Rivera and company is whether they can capture Fitzmagic in a bottle. After a season of alternating Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith, the WFT went out and got none other than everyone’s favorite journeyman quarterback in aviator shades, Ryan Fitzpatrick. An upgrade under center, to be sure, but it’s worth mentioning that Fitzpatrick has never gone to the playoffs in his career, and a shaky offensive line won’t help a QB who is far less mobile than he used to be. What’s worse for Fitzpatrick is that his starting left tackle is Charles Leno, well-known to fans in the NFC North as wishy-washy on the line. All of that aside, it feels like Washington is headed in the right direction. For now.
Meanwhile, in New York…
The Giants are still trying to figure out what they have in third-year quarterback Daniel Jones, who needs to make significant strides this season. The good news for everyone in the organization (not to mention the NFL) is that running back Saquon Barkley is reportedly on-track to play in Week 1, albeit with a restricted work load, after tearing his ACL last October. The Giants picked up wide receiver Kenny Golladay from the Lions in the off-season, which should help give Jones some attractive targets, especially considering TE Evan Engram has been slow to recover from a preseason calf injury. The question for head coach Joe Judge is whether the offensive line can give Jones the pass protection he needs to go through his progressions, make good choices, and develop some much-needed confidence as the QB1.
But no matter which way the season turns for the Giants, they’ll likely still be better than the NFC East’s biggest train wreck, the Philadelphia Eagles. Full disclosure: I’m pulling for quarterback Jalen Hurts. I think we’re all pulling for Jalen Hurts. He got a raw deal at the end of last season, when he was replaced with Nate Sudfield for reasons I’m not sure anyone has ascertained — and now, when he’s finally proven to the front office that he’s the QB1, the Eagles go out and trade for Gardner Minshew. Did I mention the elite Joe Flacco is also somewhere in the mix? GM Howie Roseman says he wants a “quarterback factory,” but how that factory is supposed to benefit the offense, or the quarterbacks in it, has yet to be seen. Roseman would have been far better off concentrating on shorting up Philly’s oft-injured offensive line.
It probably speaks to the chaos surrounding the Eagles (can you believe this team won a Super Bowl just three years ago?) that we’re just now getting to their new head coach, Nick Sirianni, who wasn’t on anyone’s short list of head coaching candidates in the offseason. Sirianni, who was previously the offensive coordinator for Indianapolis, plans to call his own plays, which, as Bears head coach Matt Nagy can tell you, is definitely the way to go. Hold onto that playbook, Nick. Don’t let anyone take it away. It’s not that there’s no talent on the Eagles’ roster, because there is. Fletcher Cox and the defensive line cause chaos in opposing offenses, and the addition of cornerback Steven Nelson helps out Darius Slay in the secondary tremendously. But the combination of an unproven head coach and Roseman mucking up everything from the executive suites is likely to be too much for the players on the field to overcome.
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