The current NFC East is the best division in the NFL, historically speaking. It has 20 Super Bowl appearances and 12 championships across its four teams -- the most of any division in football. That, coupled with its visibility due to its position in major markets, make it one of the easiest divisions to hate.
Its 2015 struggles have been a font of schadenfreude. Tony Romo is hurt, Eli Manning is a wreck, the Eagles are somehow worse and -- oh look -- everything is breaking for Washington, the NFL's ultimate shit show, to actually win it all. At face value, the NFC East could be worse. The AFC South and NFC North have picked up just two and three wins this season, respectively, and four divisions have worse cumulative point differentials. It feels like the NFC East is the biggest garbage heap, however, and it has everything to do with what the division has been in the past.
Precedent matters. The NFC East is like a once-exciting startup that became a major corporation and got flattened by the mass of its accumulated bureaucracy. It's like a once-sleek, cutting edge technological device that has devolved into a slow, sputtering, flickering screen -- your fourth generation iPod coughing up sprockets in a drawer somewhere. Perhaps it's a once-proud family now suffering through its entitled heirs.
The NFC East was really good recently -- arguably the second strongest division in football from 2002 to 2013 behind the AFC East, according to Football Outsiders (and stronger if depth matters). Now, it's a big, dumb, blubbering emperor entertaining questions about its sordid past with a pig. It feels so good to relish in its misery, but is this all just quick kicks or is the NFC East actually down for the count?
It's a damn fine trick to make people forget, if briefly, about Washington's dysfunctional offseason. We're not far removed from Jay Gruden's announcement that Kirk Cousins would be the starting quarterback over Robert Griffin III for the foreseeable future -- only three weeks ago! -- even though Griffin was reportedly owner Dan Snyder's darling.
The Griffin problem has consumed the organization. It cost the team three first rounders and a second, it was the flash point in the Snyder-Mike Shanahan feud, it caused no shortage of bickering in the locker room and it has led Cousins to assume the reins of the offense, which -- actually, Cousins may be the best starting quarterback in the division right now.
Chip Kelly and the Eagles may be demonstrating the Peter Principle. Kelly has coached his ass off to become one of the most powerful men in football. The offensive guru was coaching defensive backs and special teams at Columbia in 1990. He was a defensive coordinator at Johns Hopkins in 1993 before moving to the offensive side for good. He engineered a record-breaking offense as the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, then did the same at Oregon before becoming head coach and competing for national championships.
But everyone has their limits. Kelly's success brought him to Philly, where, after consecutive 10-6 seasons, he wrested control over personnel from then-general manager Howie Roseman and now former vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble. Kelly may have succeeded to his point of failure. Nearly every one of his widely debated offseason moves appears to have soured, leaving the Eagles looking like a shell of what they were during Kelly's first two seasons, now 0-2 for the first time since 2007 and likely to miss the postseason.
The success of the NFC East is due in large part to the division's stability at quarterback. The Eagles' best years were with Donovan McNabb, the Giants won two Super Bowls with Manning and Romo hasn't been given the credit he deserves for keeping the Cowboys competitive despite ranking 20th or worse in points allowed five times in eight season from 2006 to 2013. Those three teams have three division championships each in the last 10 years.
Those players aren't functioning like they used to. Manning has been frustrating to watch since the Giants' 2011 Super Bowl season. His 2014 season appeared to be a return to form after he recorded his worst quarterback rating since his rookie season in 2013 -- the last year of offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Now Manning is struggling under Ben McAdoo, committing rookie mental errors.
Romo is playing as well as he ever has, or at least he was until he broke his collarbone for the second time since 2010. A healthy Romo likely makes the Cowboys the easy favorites to win the NFC East, and they're still in fine shape at 2-0, but there's still the uncomfortable fact that he is tipping into the latter half of his 30s while sitting on injured reserve.
Washington's quarterback situation hasn't been stable since the first Bush administration was in office. Sam Bradford is a Zune, a seemingly sleek, serviceable product beset with bugs from the outset. NFC East teams have had varying success depending on the fluctuating quality of the supporting casts around their quarterbacks, but none have approached the pinnacle without competency under center.
The worst collective year for these four franchises was 1964, when none won more than six games out of a 14-game season, and cumulatively they were outscored by 196 points. The next worst was 1998, when the Cowboys paced the quartet with 10 wins over the 8-8 Giants, 6-10 Washington and 3-13 Eagles. They were cumulatively beaten by 201 points.
2013 was the nadir after 2002 NFL realignment. The 10-6 Eagles went to the playoffs but lost in the first round to the New Orleans Saints. Behind them was an 8-8 Cowboys team that gave up more yards than any team in the league, and 7-9 Giants and 3-13 Washington squads that were mediocre or bad on both sides of the ball. That season, the NFC East's collective point differential was minus-166.
The 2015 season is trending downward for the NFC East after just two weeks, but the good news for it -- or bad news for those schadenfreude fiends -- is that even if this is a lost year, the division should rebound. It always has. In 1966, the Cowboys and Eagles were two of the best teams in the league, and the Cowboys lost an epic NFL Championship against the Packers. The NFC East had two teams in the playoffs after the 1999 season, and a Super Bowl team the year after that. Last season, the division just missed on putting two teams in the playoffs.
It's fun to say that the NFC East is too big to evolve, too outmoded to salvage and far removed from the people who made it great. It also probably isn't true -- the NFL's year-by-year, and even week-by-week, fluctuations being what they are. Good Eli Manning could show up any time and change the narrative, or Romo could stay healthy and close his window as well as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have. And as discouraging as Bradford's performances have been, Cousins' 23-for-27 game against a good Rams defense in Week 2 was pleasantly encouraging.
So yes, you should probably get your kicks in now. None of these teams are particularly good at anything at the moment, they simply exist for you to prod and jeer, bloated by their reputations. But this state of the NFC East won't last forever. Nothing in the NFL remains the same for long.
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