The race for the NFC East was a sight for sore eyes last year. Sorry, I meant it was a sight that made my eyes sore.
It was a classic best-of-the-worst division battle and for the first time since 2012, the Washington Redskins came out on top. Washington’s 9-7 record marked just the second time since 1982 that the division was won with less than 10 wins (2011 Giants). The division race was largely shaped, however, by the team that placed last.
The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 2014 NFC East title, looked poised to do something that hadn’t been done in over a decade: repeat as NFC East champs. They had a fantastic 12-4 campaign in 2014 that ended in heartbreaking fashion to the Lions in the divisional round of the playoffs. It was without a doubt the Cowboys’ most successful season since 2007 and had many feeling that something bigger was going to come soon. The Cowboys entered 2015 as a somewhat bold, but not unreasonable, Super Bowl pick.
Then, Tony Romo was sacked in Week 2.
Before Cowboys fans could even celebrate the 2-0 start, the team’s playoff hopes took a major hit. Romo was expected to miss 8-10 weeks due to a broken collarbone suffered as a result of the sack. You generally remember what happened next: Romo returned to action in Week 11, delivered a win, and then was injured yet again in Week 12. Dallas went 1-11 without Romo and finished the nightmare of a season at 4-12. All this after going into 2015 with Super Bowl aspirations.
Now here we are in 2016. A few things have changed. Recognizing the need for improvement in the backup/future QB department, Dallas used their 4th round pick on QB Dak Prescott. They also took RB Ezekiel Elliott with their first pick, hoping to return to the powerful ground game they used to have with DeMarco Murray and perhaps also take some pressure off Romo to drop back and risk injury so often. One huge thing has stayed the same, however: on paper, the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East, but the health of Tony Romo will determine just how great they can be.
This year, it didn’t even take until Week 2 for Dallas’ season to be put in major jeopardy.
On just the third play in Dallas’ third preseason game, Romo was hit hard and suffered a broken bone in his back. Despite the optimism of head coach Jason Garrett (he hasn’t ruled him out for Week 1), Romo is expected to miss 6-10 weeks. It appears that we will find out if Dallas’ attempts to patch the backup QB problem will make a difference, just a lot sooner than we may have expected. Dallas lost Tony Romo, not the great team around him. With new pieces in place, can the Cowboys tread water until his return? That’s the question for now, despite a much darker question about Romo’s future looming. But I’ll save that for another post.
If we look back to Washington, we’ll see the Redskins trying out their new QB of the future. Bring the Redskins to the playoffs once and you’re a hero. Bring them twice and you’re a god. Kirk Cousins officially took over the reigns of the Skins’ offense in 2015 and ascended to hero status, winning the NFC East and earning himself a 1-year shot to perform under the franchise tag. A long-term contract looks inevitable if he can repeat his success. But this is more important for Washington than it is for Cousins.
Forgive Redskins fans and the front office for not jumping at the chance to crown Cousins after a year, as they’ve been through this before. Robert Griffin III looked about as sure a thing as you can get, living up to huge expectations in his rookie year. Injuries and poor play followed, sending Washington right back to the cellar they worked so hard to crawl out of. Here we are again, but instead it’s Cousins with a chance to replicate greatness. After years of playing under RG3’s shadow, is Cousins actually the savior Washington has been looking for?
The New York Giants are as big an enigma as any in the NFL. Slipping in a couple of Super Bowl victories in between brief stretches of playoff-less seasons isn’t a bad way to keep the brutal New York media and fans at bay, but it’s now been four years since their last one and patience is at an all-time low. This latest period has been marked by a staggeringly poor production from draft picks, outside of obvious highlights such as Odell Beckham and Jason Pierre-Paul. Seeing Eli Manning’s years tick away like seconds, the NY front office decided to go a different route and spend more in free agency than we’ve seen in a while. Most notably, New York added DE Olivier Vernon, CB Janoris Jenkins, and DT Damon Harrison to help improve a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL last year. It’s hard not to improve after a performance like last season, but will it be enough to make a meaningful difference? Spending big in free agency has been shown to be a fool’s errand in the past, but the Giants are hoping that a stacked passing offense can carry an average defense to the NFC East title.
Last and maybe least, the Philadelphia Eagles are moving on from the failed Chip Kelly experiment. Despite two winning seasons in his first two years, Philly was sick of Kelly’s unorthodox tactics and personality, sending him on his way in 2015 after a 6-9 campaign. The Eagles will now turn to Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator of the Chiefs from 2013-15. They’ll pair him up with QB Sam Bradford and perhaps 2nd overall pick Carson Wentz, if things start to go south with Bradford. It’s an odd time for the Eagles, following a season of middling success and lukewarm attitudes toward the team’s stars. Is a new coach all they need to tap into the potential of this team? The defense still heads into 2016 with many questions and although it could be worse, the QB situation won’t excite anyone for the time being.
It’s a series of experiments for the NFC East, some voluntary and some not. While another poor showing for the division as a whole seems possible, the fun part will be waiting to see if one team actually got it right. In a division full of questions, one thing still remains certain after all these years: the NFC East is up for grabs.