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2013 NFC East preview: Will Washington repeat as division champs?

RGIII carried Washington to a division title last season. He's primed to do it again, but anything can happen in a wide open NFC East.

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Patrick McDermott

Glory days, well they'll pass you by

Glory days in the wink of a young girl's eye

Glory days, glory days

Ah, the glory days of the NFC East. In the late '80's and early '90's, the title road ran right down the Eastern seaboard - with a pronounced Westward jog down Texas way, though it never made it quite so far as Phoenix. From New York to Washington to Dallas, the Lombardi was handed down like a dynastic relic, a scepter denoting the division's unchallenged supremacy.

How times have changed.

Since the Cowboys' last title in '95, no division has managed a worse hype-to-bang ratio than the NFC East. America's Team has been first in franchise value, first in merchandise sales and almost dead last in playoff victories over that span.

The Eagles soared to four straight NFC title games in the early 2000's but fell short in their lone Super Bowl jaunt. They collected a few more division crowns over the balance of the decade and made a little postseason noise, but they crashed hard in the '10's as the Dream Team turned into a Freddy Krueger production.

The Redskins have endured an almost unbroken litany of disaster since Dan Snyder took the reins in 1999 and even franchise savior RGIII was struck down at the end of a brilliant rookie season.

The Giants have laid claim to two Lombardi trophies, but both felt like Flacco-style 'got hot at the right time' jobs rather than the work of dominating squads -- and both were followed up by title 'defense' pratfalls that left New York sitting at home for the playoffs the following season.

For all the media hype, all the jersey sales and all the echoes of past glory, the NFC East has been ... mediocre. Not awful, not laughable, but not up to the proud standards that it set for itself in the '80's and '90's.

The division aims to leave mediocrity behind for good, hoping to return to the glory that every team considers as its birthright.

Dallas Cowboys

The Plan for the Cowboys is a two-parter: spackle together an offensive line that can allow the Romo n’ Dez show to terrorize secondaries while providing DeMarco Murray with a fighting chance and fix a pass defense that was absolutely roasted in 2012. The first coat was applied to the line in the person of Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, a probable reach on Draft Day who has nonetheless been a refreshing dose of competence in the preseason. The rest of the line still seems to be taking the ‘wing and a prayer’ approach, however, with a Ronald Leary/Doug Free/Jermey Parnell troika promising plenty of hide-your-eyes moments.

To put out the defensive fire, Jerry eschewed the hot young coaching names, popped in a Hootie and the Blowfish cassette and tabbed late-90’s defensive icon Monte Kiffin. The early returns seem … not too bad. Dallas’ defense has been effective against the run and the pass in the preseason despite the absence of Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, flashing a penchant for forcing turnovers that’s been long-absent in Big D. The safety position could be a disaster waiting to happen but, it appears that Kiffin still knows his business.

ODDS OF SUCCESS: In Texas parlance, fair to middlin’. Dallas had too many holes to return to glory in a single offseason and the early return on key draft choices like Gavin Escobar and J.J. Wilcox is not great. They’ve made progress, though, and the emergence of Dez Bryant, Superweapon should give them a puncher’s chance in every game.

Washington Redskins

The Plan for Washington starts with letting Dr. James Andrews do his thing. With Commissioner Goodell’s ridiculous collusion enforcement completely justified penalty for circumventing the cap in an uncapped year hanging over their heads, Washington had no chance of making a splash in free agency. They’re instead counting on healthy returns from Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo while hoping that Pierre Garcon’s toe and Fred Davis’ Achilles are ready for sixteen games of action. If all that comes to pass, the Redskins will field a much stronger 2013 squad with barely a draft pick or free agency dollar spent.

The help Washington did land in the draft figures to impact the defensive side of the ball. CB David Amerson’s gambling ways should result in five interceptions and seven touchdowns given up after he bites on double moves -- and feelings of paternal pride from DeAngelo Hall. The awesomely named Baccari Rambo should lock down one of Washington’s perennially disastrous safety spots, and would be hard pressed to do worse than what the Redskins have previously trotted out in the back of the secondary.

ODDS OF SUCCESS: Solid. RGIII is a transformational player and his health is paramount. The return of his injured compatriots should give him more of a margin for error than he enjoyed his entire rookie season. Washington may still be looking up at the class of the conference, but a healthy Redskins squad could have a leg up in the chase for a second straight division crown.

New York Giants

The plan for the G-men has the 'back to basics' feel that you'd expect from a team one year removed from a Super Bowl title. New York is working with a tried and true formula: spend early draft choices on guys who play with their hand on the ground and count on Eli Manning and the pass rush take care of the rest.

The large gentleman drafted on offense was Justin Pugh, a guy who did an admirable job of keeping Ryan Nassib's jersey clean at Syracuse. New York hopes he'll do the same after moving downstate, as Manning's phenomenal production in the face of heavy pressure in 2011 regressed to more average levels in 2012. A clean pocket and a clean bill of health for Hakeem Nicked Nicks should help amp up the Giants' offense while both Nicks and slot impresario Victor Cruz should feast on the division's dubious safety play.

Unfortunately for the Giants, some of that dubious safety play will be happening in their own secondary after losing Stevie Brown to an ACL tear. Outside of Prince Amukamara, the Giants' secondary is bad ... and it hasn't been helped by the official transition of CB Terrell Thomas' right knee from 'troublesome' to 'possibly cursed by a Gypsy'. Shoddy coverage from the linebackers and secondary would mean that even the Four Aces would be hard pressed to keep the Giant's pass defense afloat. With Justin Tuck aging in dog years and Osi Umenyiora departing to Atlanta, however, even the addition of Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore -- along with the return of Mathias Kiwanuka to DE -- likely won't be enough to return the Giants' pass rush to its 2011 peak.

ODDS OF SUCCESS: Marginal. If a spotty OL can hold up and Hakeem Nicks can stay on the field, the Giants can return to their high-flying ways ... but they may need to win a few too many shootouts in support of a shoddy secondary.

Philadelphia Eagles

The plan for the Eagles will take a while to come to fruition. There should be intrigue aplenty as the world watches how well Chip Kelly's fast-break Oregon offense translates to the NFL. Despite a wealth of misconceptions about what Kelly likes to run, however, the Eagles' offense is likely to be a fundamentally sound attack that spreads the defense as wide as it can to pound as hard as it can with the run. The dynamic LeSean McCoy figures to benefit heavily and Vick-to-Jackson should provide enough vertical pop to keep defenses from utterly selling out against the short stuff. Despite a dearth of quality options in the passing game, Kelly should be able to craft a reasonably high-octane attack.

The problem in Philly, though, is that 'high octane' won't be enough to keep up with a defense as leaky as the Eagles' figures to be -- 'plutonium-fueled' would barely be enough to fill the bill. The switch to a 3-4 was a puzzling choice as it seems to have imposed an unnecessary learning (or re-learning) curve on the few quality players on the Eagles' defense -- Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Vinny Curry. Meanwhile, no alignment outside of a 4-4-5 could completely cover for a talent-deficient bunch of inside linebackers and DBs.

ODDS OF SUCCESS: Not this year. But if Chip Kelly can prove that his offensive stylings translate to the big leagues while keeping his core talent bought in to the process, the Plan will have taken a vital step forward.

The Last Word

Players like Ware, McCoy, Griffin and Pierre-Paul may be among the league's elite at their repsective positions, but no team in the NFC East packs the kind of top-to-bottom talent to truly stand toe to toe with teams like Seattle and San Francisco.

Those squads have a fundamental advantage over the NFC East and just about everyone else for that matter -- talented young quarterbacks counting less than $1 million a season against the salary cap. There's reason for optimism across the division, though, because every team looks to be executing on a solid plan while assembling talent that can fit on a Super Bowl contender.

Glory days could be on their way back to the NFC East.

But they likely won't get back this season.

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