Are the Eagle’s NFC East Rivals Becoming The AFC East?
The 2013 NFC East Division winners, the Philadelphia Eagles, have made it to the doorstep of the 2014 NFL season with a few bumps and bruises, but relatively intact and certainly with an expectation to do well this season. And with the likes of quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy, wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, the offense is going to challenge many of the NFL defenses in the league this year.
With improvements that appear to be taking shape on defense, the Eagles could be successful. But does the Eagles success depend, in part, on the overall success of the NFC East or not? In short, is it better to be a good team in a good division, than to be a good team in a bad division?
Well, a perfect example of the latter lies in our AFC counterparts, the AFC East. In the AFC East, the last year that division sent two teams to the playoffs was 2010, when the New York Jets, with quarterback Mark Sanchez, earned a playoff berth with an 11-5 season. Since then, for the past three years, no AFC East team besides the Patriots has finished better than .500.
This year, the NFC East division is touted as being wide open by main stream media whose interest is more about selling a story than objective assessment. If by wide open, they mean there are serious questions among the other three teams than that is an objective view. The difficulty in the early season projections is that after the first game, injuries and performances begin to cloud a team’s chances. Do players step up? Do players gain expertise and confidence throughout the season? In the case of last year’s Eagles, the team started out poorly on defense but became adequate as the season rolled on.
But each of the Eagles NFC East rivals have multiple issues to face this year which complicates their chances this year. Let’s discuss these question marks?
Washington Redskins – In the aftermath of Mike Shanahan. the Washington Redskins are in a rebuilding year, sans the first round draft pick that was added to the draft of the St. Louis Rams via the Robert Griffin III draft pick. While they have some quality skill players: wide receiver Pierre Garcon, running back Alfred Morris, and tight end Jordan Reed and left tackle Trent Williams. So where is the question mark? Can Robert Griffin III run a version of the NFL offense of Jay Gruden? In preseason, the results were disappointing. In addition, the Redskins added sometimes disgruntled wide receiver DeSean Jackson. In this offense, with a rookie coaching staff, assembling a cast where everyone is happy with the ball distribution will take something close to a miracle.
In the absence of London Fletcher, the Redskins sought veteran help on the defensive line with ninth year veteran Jason Hatcher and in the defensive backfield with thirteenth year veteran safety Ryan Clark. From a year ago defense that gave up fewer points to only one NFL team, they have a ways to go.
Dallas Cowboys - While many look past this being a contract year for head coach Jason Garrett, the amount of activity in reassigning offensive play calling and defensive coordinators suggest that Garrett’s position at the top is not entirely safe. On the offense, there are reasons to have some confidence, as the offensive line continued to be a focus in the NFL draft, and wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten provide some good targets for Tony Romo. But the question remains whether Romo, who is coming back from back surgery, can withstand the wear and tear for a full season. If not, the team is entrusted to quarterback Brandon Weeden. That could prove to be disastrous.
In training camp, another injury to oft injured linebacker Sean Lee added to the cowboys defensive woes, having lost Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware to free agency. This impacted a defense which surrendered the most yards and was near the bottom of points allowed, and you are looking at 16 NFL shootouts. Shootouts unless that offense derails.
New York Giants – To be fair, nobody can truly expect quarterback Eli Manning to lead the New York Giants to worst NFL team in interceptions thrown this year. In fact, his cycle appears to be every four years he tosses 20+ interceptions. But this time, he is learning a new offense, and he has yet to establish a chemistry with wide receiver Reuben Randle. With the retirement of longtime offensive linemen Chris Snee, the Giants offensive line may not settle for a few weeks. The Giants are hopeful that they can find a running game this season to help their quarterback. So far, the Giant’s offense appears to run more effectively under Ryan Nassib. Can Eli end the season as the starter?
While the Giants have addressed the linebacker and defensive back positions this off-season, the defense hinges on the play of Jason Pierre-Paul. So far, his performances have been mixed. While he has shown positive production in some preseason games, he left the game against the Jets as trainers examined his right knee. While no prolonged damage was done, it does serve to show just how much wear and tear can be inflicted on a defensive lineman in a season, and how difficult it will be for JPP to remain healthy this year.
So where does that place us? Well Football Outsiders projects the NFC East :
Eagles (10-6), Giants (9-7), Cowboys (7-9) and Redskins (6-10)
USA TODAY projects the NFC East this way:
Eagles (11-5), Redskins (7-9), Giants (6-10), Cowboys (3-13)
Does it hurt the Eagles to be a good team in a division that is not so good? Well USA TODAY projects the Eagles to be a first round playoff loser, so in terms of strong teams and perceptions, it seems to detract from expectations. In facing quality teams, some have argued that beating teams counts more when they are a higher quality team. But that is a circular argument, in that how do you know a team is truly “bad” until the end of the season? At one point, the Kansas City Chiefs were unbeatable in 2013, but my oh my did they look beatable in that meltdown loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs.
There is also the argument that a team, such as New England, benefits from a weak division in that they can design their personnel to match up optimally with projected playoff opponents. While New England routinely makes the playoffs, that “edge” does not seem to help there.
In the Eagles case, neither seem true. The Eagles simply got hot and ran a string of wins into the playoffs. Along the way, they had to face teams who were also fighting for their own playoff chances. And with the NFL configuration, six division games are not the same weight as the old NFC East eight division games in a fourteen game season. Still, fans unhappy with Eagles success will discount that success in any means possible.