— The NFC East, circa 1990, was filled with colorful personalities and great football players. Close your eyes, think back to that halcyon era and you can almost feel the collisions and hear the trash talking.
The Hogs. Joe Gibbs. Bill Parcells. Lawrence Taylor. Crazy Buddy Ryan. Reggie White & Co. Brash Jimmy Johnson. A burgeoning power on the horizon — the Cowboys.
Oh, yeah, and Super Bowls. Lots of Super Bowls. An NFC East team captured the Super Bowl six times in an eight-year span, from 1986 to 1993 — two by the Cowboys, two by the Giants, two by the Redskins.
Every Sunday was Armageddon, and everybody said there never would be anything like it again.
Like tectonic plates shifting beneath the earth’s surface, the power in the NFL is changing. Once again, it has settled in the NFC East, where you will find four of the best teams in the league.
The Cowboys and Giants, both 3-0, are the best, followed by the Eagles and Redskins, both 2-1.
Please, don’t even try to argue that it’s not the best division in the league. The way things are going, the NFC East could make history. It has a chance to become the first division in the modern era (post-1970) to finish with winning records, top to bottom.
It’s not that we didn't see this coming. A year ago, no team in the NFC East had a losing record, the sixth time a division had every team at .500 or better. Are these teams lucky or just plain good? Definitely more of that latter, although there’s some luck involved.
Take the Eagles, for instance. When quarterback Donovan McNabb is injured, they struggle. (He missed a total of 13 games in 2005 and 2006.) When he’s in the lineup, they win. Quarterback stability is so vital, and it’s the primary reason why the Cowboys and Giants have emerged as elite teams.
Tony Romo and Eli Manning have matured greatly over the last two years, each one overcoming different types of pressure. Romo, undrafted out of college, was an unknown; Manning, a former No. 1 overall pick, was too known, raising expectations to a ridiculous level. The Redskins’ Jason Campbell falls somewhere in between, but he has enough talent to become a consistent, winning quarterback.
Obviously, the success of each team extends beyond the quarterback position. Each organization has its own personality, its own winning formula.
For the Eagles, it’s coaching. They have two blue-chip players in McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook, but the roster isn’t filled with big-name, Pro-Bowl types. Andy Reid and his defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, do a masterful job of plugging players into their systems.
The Eagles spent mega bucks on free-agent cornerback Asante Samuel, but they generally find and develop lesser-known players. As a result, they can win with different styles. They can play shootout football — 75 points in the first two games — or they can get down and dirty, as they did last weekend in a 15-6 win over the Steelers. Johnson unleashed a creative blitz package, sacking Ben Roethlisberger eight times. Basically, they cleaned Big Ben’s clock.
For the Giants, it’s all about astute drafting. The defending Super Bowl champs lost right defensive end Michael Strahan to retirement and left defensive end Osi Umenyiora to a season-ending knee injury, setbacks that would cripple most teams, but their vaunted pass rush hasn’t suffered much of a falloff. Former No. 1 pick Mathias Kiwanuka, drafted as a defensive end and converted to linebacker, has made a seamless transition back to his natural position. Justin Tuck, a former third-round pick, has emerged from the shadows and is capable of dominating — and he does on many Sundays.
In the backfield, the Giants are stacked up like club sandwiches, with enough depth to carry them through to rigors of a long season. GM Jerry Reese, and his predecessor, Ernie Accorsi, filled the roster with talent and depth. Jeremy, who?
For the Cowboys, it’s show biz. Owner/GM Jerry Jones is obsessed with finding crowd-pleasing players, and he has assembled a roster filled with them — Romo, Terrell Owens, Marion Barber, rookie Felix Jones, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Adam (Don’t Call Me Pacman) Jones.
Jerry Jones doesn’t care if he offends anybody — Pacman? Come on — but he recognizes the importance of speed and play-making ability. The Cowboys have beaten three good teams (the Browns, Eagles and Packers), resembling an offensive juggernaut. Imagine when they get T.O. going.
For the Redskins, it’s about patience — finally. After years of looking for the quick fix, impulsive owner Daniel Snyder finally seems to be grasping the concept of building for the long term. For the most part, he stayed out of the free-agent market, saving his big splash for the dancing defensive end, Jason Taylor. But Snyder made that trade only after injuries decimated his defensive line in training camp.
The Redskins aren’t as far along as the other three in the division, but there seems to be a plan under rookie coach Jim Zorn. The Zorn-Reid-Tom Coughlin-Wade Phillips quartet is six Super Bowl titles shy of Gibbs, Parcells, Ryan and Johnson, but they’ve definitely got something going.