In 2007, mentioning the NFC East to any NFL fan evoked visions of a sturdy Philadelphia Eagles team, spearheaded by the versatile Donovan McNabb, speedy Brian Westbrook, and literally the biggest personality in sports, Andy Reid.
Fans envisioned a spirited Washington Redskins playoff squad motivated by Hall of Fame coach, Joe Gibbs, by the improved performance of QB Jason Campbell, and by the terrible tragedy that befell beloved teammate Sean Taylor in November of that year.
Fans marveled at an ambitious 13-3 Dallas Cowboys team that featured new head coach Wade Phillips and blossoming QB Tony Romo.
And last but not least, who can forget the New York Giants team, the ultimate underdogs, who, with a brutal running game and dominant defensive line, managed to pull off the biggest upset in history, beating the 18-1 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII? Four years later, however, the NFC East landscape has changed dramatically.
After a surprising 2010 season, the Eagles have established themselves, coming into the 2011 NFL season as arguably the most dangerous offense since the 2007 New England Patriots. Led by Comeback Player of the Year Michael Vick, who emerged out of the ashes of irrelevancy to lead the Eagles to the NFC East title, these new Philadelphia Eagles are hungry to reach their full potential and bring the first Super Bowl to the City of Brotherly Love.
Coming off of a stellar offseason, the Eagles have added offensive and defensive free agent gems, such as DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, RB Ronnie Brown, WR Steve Smith, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and QB Vince Young, to help out a dynamic, exciting team already equipped with the ever elusive Vick; the most formidable deep threat tandem the NFL has seen in years, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin; as well as a much improved running back in LeSean “Lady Gaga” McCoy. On defense, these free agent signings join established pass rush artist, Trent Cole, and ball-hawking CB Asante Samuel.
However enticing this dream team may sound, though, in three games they have looked less than perfect, winning an ugly game in St. Louis, losing to Atlanta in a fourth quarter collapse, and getting flat out out-played on offense, defense, and special teams by the Giants two Sundays ago in their home opener.
Just this past Sunday, as well, the dream team, very happy at the half, up 20-3 on the 49ers, were outscored 21-4 in the second half at home, their second sloppy loss in three games. In a city where fans are ruthless and critical at best, there is a lot of pressure on the Eagles to perform. Despite their many strengths, the Eagles have showed weakness in the offensive line and in the linebacking corps since the start of the season, letting Michael Vick get thrown around like a rag doll in the backfield, and getting beaten in the middle of the field consistently by opposing running backs and tight ends.
So far, the Eagles seem comparable to the Miami Heat, a team that had the pieces, but couldn’t put them together when it mattered. Whether the Eagles will be able to back up the immense hype they have created for themselves, and whether they will be able to put together the pieces when it counts, are questions that only time will answer.
Since 2007, the Washington Redskins have been consistent. Consistently bad, to be precise. In four years, they have gone through two head coaches, losing Joe Gibbs at the end of the 2007 season and firing basket case coach Jim Zorn at the end of the 2009 season, who couldn’t even remember the stinky Skins’ record during a press conference in late 2009.
Impatient owner, Dan Snyder, keen on winning in the short term, decided to go with a proven commodity at the start of the 2010 season, hiring former Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan. So far, however, Shanahan’s Washington career has been strikingly Redskin-esque.
The offensive mastermind who produced greats like Hall of Famer John Elway, veteran dynamo Jake Plummer, and current gunslinger Jay Cutler decided to deal promising QB Jason Campbell to the Raiders and get Donovan McNabb from divisional rival Philadelphia.
Donovan McNabb’s stint with the Redskins was, without a doubt, the low point of both his and Shanahan’s illustrious careers. McNabb, benched for four games by Shanahan, played only 12 games and finished with a cumulative passer rating of 77.1 for the season, his lowest passer rating since his rookie season in which he only started 6 games. The Redskins went 4-12 last season, finishing in last place in the NFC East. Now, in 2011, with a new quarterback in Rex Grossman, a new running back in Tim Hightower, and a new mindset on defense, the Redskins are the best team in the NFC East, thus far.
They defeated the Giants handily in Week 1 in an emotional game on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. They also came from behind in the waning seconds of last week’s game to beat the Cardinals by 1. Just this past week, they were able to slide past the 0-4 St. Louis Rams by sticking to their guns, running the ball and playing solid defense.
Although they suffered a sloppy loss to the Cowboys on a Monday night showdown two weeks ago, with a 3-1 record and a rejuvenated T-Rex, who is playing much more consistently than his atrocious Chicago career would have ever indicated, the Skins look like they want to send a message to their fans: take the brown bags off your heads.
The Dallas Cowboys. America’s Team. The Pride of the Lone Star State. The iconic silver star on the side of their helmets is unquestionably special. The Dallas Cowboys are a perennial sign of the spirit of football in our country. The ’Boys are an ambassador to the NFL around the entire world. As such, there are certain standards expected of a team of such high caliber. In 2007, the Cowboys were the best team in the NFC, the number one seed at 13-3, the champions of the NFC East, and the most exciting team in years. With players like QB Tony Romo, WR Terrell Owens, RB Marion Barber, TE Jason Witten, and new head coach Wade Phillips, the Dallas Cowboys became an NFC dynamo for the first time in years.
Despite this promising season, four years later, the Dallas Cowboys have never been on such thin ice. After one of the worst seasons in recent Cowboys memory in 2010, new permanent head coach Jason Garrett, as well as QB Tony Romo and defensive protégé Rob Ryan, are trying to find answers to the many questions that last season left unanswered, the abysmal secondary and the horrific play calling to name a few.
The 2011 season has brought even more problems though, including a young receiving corps led by WR Dez Bryant that needs improvement, a totally revamped offensive line, a new running game totally centered around 3rd year running back, Felix Jones, and a perennial weakness in the defensive secondary.
The stakes have never been higher for the Cowboys. So far, the 2011 season has gone less than perfectly for America’s Team. After losing a Week 1 9/11 matchup to Rex Ryan’s Jets, the Cowboys were left angry and uncertain, as represented by Rex’s twin brother, Rob, who went on an angry tirade of curses and gray hair flips after the devastating fourth quarter meltdown.
The tides have changed since then, however, with highly-criticized QB Tony Romo fighting through broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung to deliver arguably the gutsiest win of his career in overtime at Candlestick Park, a venue that has been treacherous to many a player with the brilliant silver star on his helmet. One week later, in a Monday Night matchup, the entire nation watched the Cowboys win an ugly game against divisional rivals Washington, beating the Redskins without even scoring a touchdown.
Despite their recent good fortunes, this past weekend, the Cowboys suffered one of the worst meltdowns in franchise history, losing to Highland Park native Matthew Stafford and his Detroit Lions in what should have been a “W” for the men in silver and blue, if not for some tragic offensive play calling. So far, the Boys have been holding up, but only time will tell if America’s Team will be the next big thing in the NFC, or if they will lay another silver egg like last year.
Four years ago. An underrated quarterback. An aging defense. A washed up head coach. 18-0. Perfection. Underdog. The New York Giants were an underperforming 10-6 team expected to miss the playoffs in 2007. They were aging on both sides of the ball, head coach Tom Coughlin had gone from a head coach to a red balloon in a blue jacket on the sidelines, and nothing seemed right with the G-Men. Led by clumsy QB Eli Manning and the best defensive line the NFL has seen in years, however, the New York Football Giants overcame all odds to make it to the playoffs, fight their way to Super Bowl XLII, and beat Tom Brady’s 18-0 New England Patriots to become World Champions.
Even today, NFL fans look back on that glorious day in early February 2008 as the greatest Super Bowl ever played. With images of Plaxico Burress cheering with 35 seconds left on the clock, with images of Randy Moss catching passes from Tom Brady and slashing through the Big Blue defense, and with the singular image of a football glued to David Tyree’s magical helmet, that Super Bowl created amazing drama, amazing football, and by far the most amazing play in Super Bowl history. The Giants were heroes, the greatest underdogs in the NFL since Joe Willie Namath’s Jets.
Four years later, things aren’t looking as good. After going 11-1 to start 2008, hoping to defend their title, star WR Plaxico Burress, Eli’s number one target, shot himself in the leg in a night club and was arrested. The Giants still won the number one seed in the NFC that year, but did not manage to win a game in the playoffs. In fact, the last playoff game the Giants have won was that 4th quarter thriller in Arizona four years ago.
The past two years, the Giants have been right in the thick of things, only to miss the playoffs late. They have endured major changes, some good and some not so good, over the past two years as well: losing Plax, getting a new defensive coordinator in Perry Fewell, losing middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, and almost getting coach Tom Coughlin canned. Last year, the Giants looked poised to make the playoffs, coming in to Week 15 at 9-4, only to lose arguably the worst game in franchise history to DeSean Jackson and the hated archrival Philadelphia Eagles, in what has come to be called the Miracle at the Meadowlands II. Because of this epic meltdown, in which the Giants gave up 28 points in the final eight minutes of the game, including a walk off punt return by DeSean Jackson of the Eagles, the Giants missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, while the Seattle Seahawks became the first team to make the playoffs with a losing record at 7-9.
As bitter as the Giants season was last year, the off season went even worse. After getting a promising first round draft pick, CB Prince Amukamara from Nebraska, the Giants’ luck totally dried up. The Giants lost TE Kevin Boss and WR Steve Smith, Eli’s two most reliable targets, to free agency, as well as starting DT “Big” Barry Cofield. GM Jerry Reese even let go of two of the most sure handed New York Giants of all time, C Shaun O’Hara and G Rich Seubert.
On top of the free agency woes, the Angel of Death happened to visit New York Giants training camp this off season, with the Giants losing first round draft pick Prince Amukamara for 8 weeks due to injury, along with starting CB Terrell Thomas, CB Bruce Witherspoon, starting LB Clint Sintim, fellow starting LB Jonathan Goff, and second round draft pick DT Marvin Austin, who all suffered season ending injuries before the season even began. To make things even worse, DE Osi Umenyiora, who had just recently finished contract negotiations with the team, had to get surgery on his knee and is out for about 4-5 weeks. Defensive captain, Justin Tuck had to miss Week 1 with a stinger in his neck, and WR Domenik Hixon tore his ACL for the second straight year and is out for the season, delivering yet another blow to the depleted receiving corp.
With almost everyone injured, the New York Giants took the field on Week 1 against the Redskins in what was a very emotional 10th anniversary of 9/11 for both the city of New York as well as our nation’s capital. The Giants looked more like the Jesuit Rangers Freshman B team than an actual NFL powerhouse. They ran the ball poorly, Eli couldn’t get in a rhythm, the new offensive line was confused on blocking assignments, the wide receivers seemed to be haplessly running around in the Redskins’ secondary, and the so-called wall that is the New York Giants defense made “Sexy Rexy” Grossman look like the chosen one.
For Giants fans everywhere, on an occasion of such magnitude for the city of New York, the disappointment was unrivaled. New York Giants everywhere began to lose hope. A Monday night game one week later did not do much to reinstate a sense of hope, the Giants creeping by a sloppy, injured St. Louis Rams team in what was a careless game by both sides.
The real sense of hope for this Giants team was last week. Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love. Revenge. Every New York Giants fan in history has always hated and will always hate the “Philthadelphia Iggles.” On top of this already intrinsic hatred, the so-called Miracle at the Meadowlands in 2010 that cost the Giants their season was one of the worst losses in New York Giants history. The Giants, unlike in Washington, answered back in Philadelphia. Eli Manning had his best game since November of last year, throwing 4 TD’s and no INT’s to lead the Giants to a satisfying slice of revenge. The Giants defense pressured Michael Vick play in and play out, and when they weren’t sacking him, they were roughing him up badly. The New York Giants silenced the Dream Team in what was previewed to be “a blowout of epic proportions.”
Just a week later, the Giants did not let the big win in Philly go to their heads, getting a solid win in Arizona due to Eli’s improved play and despite missing defensive captain Justin Tuck. The Giants are used to being underdogs. They are used to not getting much credit. Even in the Big Apple, they have taken a back seat to the New York Jets in many people’s hearts. In 2007, an underdog status, a slow start, and constant injuries plagued them all season, but they stayed resilient. In 2011, the atmosphere around this team is the same as it was 4 years ago. Even the stakes are the same. If the Giants want to end the season the way they did in 2007, they have to show up in big moments, like they did in Week 3 in Philly and against Arizona four years ago.
The NFC East is perennially one of the most competitive and fun-to-watch divisions in the NFL. The rivalries and spectacles that these divisional games produced over the years have been memorable for every NFL fan. In such a tight division where really anyone can win, I see the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys finishing both with 10-6 records, with the Dallas Cowboys winning the division. Their coaching has improved highly, and Tony Romo’s confidence is through the roof. If they can avoid injuries, I see the Boys reclaiming their place atop the NFC East.
I see the Giants coming in at second place. I think that injuries will plague them throughout the season, but I think that because of the strength on the road that they will be able to win big games down the stretch and that Eli Manning will prove that he doesn’t need big name wide receivers to get the job done.
In third place, I think that the Washington Redskins, led by Mike Shanahan, will find a way to win 8 games and really give the fan base in Washington something to cheer about. I think Rex Grossman remains consistent and that the run game under Shanahan flourishes with RB Tim Hightower.
Finally, the coveted spot of last place in the NFC East belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dream Team. As good as they were predicted to be, I don’t think that the Eagles are really a dream team. They don’t play great defense, their free agent signings, notably Nnamdi Asomugha, have not performed well, their team chemistry is lacking, and their coaching is not up to snuff.
On defense, they have former offensive line coach Juan Castillo, whose defensive know how is untested, running the show. Despite having experienced guys like Howard Mudd and Jim Washburn under Coach Andy Reid, I don’t think the organization of the team is going to lead to effective play calling on either side of the ball. I think they become the biggest bust in the NFL this season, at 6-10, with Michael Vick nursing injuries all year behind a sloppy offensive line and with the defense playing catch up versus opposing offenses.