There was a time when the NFC East was considered the best division in football, a golden age that lasted 14 seasons and produced coaches and players who are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
From 1982 to 1995, the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and New York Giants won eight of 14 Super Bowls -- the Cowboys and Redskins won three each and the Giants two. The Philadelphia Eagles were formidable as well, making the playoffs in five of those same seasons. The St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals were the doormat, although capable of the occasional upset.
"It was definitely one of the great eras," said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. "There were just so many quality people involved, between the coaches and the players. You knew going into every season one of us was going to be playing for a championship, and it made everybody better because the toughest games you had all year were usually the ones in your own division."
The best year may have been 1990, when Washington, New York and Philadelphia made the playoffs, with the Giants winning the Super Bowl, 20-19, on Scott Norwood's missed field goal.
But over the past eight years, the division has mostly fallen on hard times. Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells sort of retired. The Cowboys got old and owner Jerry Jones demonstrated he was not the best judge of personnel, or head coaches. Only the Giants have advanced to the Super Bowl since '95, but they lost, 34-7, to the Baltimore Ravens at the end of the 2000 season, then went into a freefall.
But now, the NFC East may well be back, especially with Gibbs again coaching a Redskins team that was 59-36 in the division over his first 12 seasons in Washington. Parcells is in his second season of trying to turn around the Cowboys after a 10-6 year in 2003. Former Parcells assistant Tom Coughlin is in his first year with the Giants and Andy Reid is attempting to get the Eagles over the hump after three straight losses in the NFC title game.
"It's going to be smash-mouth football like the old NFC East," said Cowboys running back Eddie George, the former longtime member of the Tennessee Titans. "Every team in the division is loading up. It's going to be very, very competitive. I don't know if we can get it back where it used to be, but we're sure going to try."
Not everyone is convinced it will happen right away.
"It's not as good now as it was back in our time there," said Richie Petitbon, Gibbs's longtime defensive coordinator. "I'd say there's not a team in that division right now that could win many games in the '80s. The Giants with [Phil] Simms and L.T. [Lawrence Taylor]. The Cowboys with [Troy] Aikman, Philly with Randall Cunningham. I know it's impossible to compare eras, but these teams now just aren't as good.
"Now the coaching is great, no question about that. But the way the NFL is now, you can't name very many players on any of these rosters. I don't know how you get any continuity from year to year. It's really a crapshoot when it comes right down to it. At least we knew who the personnel were from year to year and what they could do. That's not the case any more."
The Eagles would appear to be a bit ahead of the competition, with the additions of big-play wide receiver Terrell Owens and pass rushing terror Jevon Kearse. Donovan McNabb remains one of the game's marquee quarterbacks, even if he's still got pass-accuracy problems, and the Eagles already have been hurt by season-ending injuries to running back Correll Buckhalter and defensive end N.D. Kalu.
Their biggest concern will be in the secondary, where longtime Pro Bowl cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent were allowed to leave via free agency. It's a void the Eagles hope can be filled by younger backups Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, who saw considerable action a year ago. Taylor and Vincent could always be counted on to single-cover receivers, freeing up safeties and linebackers to blitz. Now, they'll have to depend more on their front four for a pass rush, because Kalu's absence was a major loss.
The Giants and Cowboys both have major question marks at quarterback.
Parcells seems content to allow Vinny Testaverde (he turns 41 in November) to run his team, a major risk considering his age and immobility. Backup Drew Henson is simply not yet ready for prime time. The Cowboys led the league in defense a year ago, and will have to do more of the same to remain competitive.
The Giants will go in the same direction, at least to start the season. Offseason acquisition Kurt Warner was named the team's starter over Eli Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Many of the Giants' veteran players were not happy when the team let longtime starter Kerry Collins leave, and the team's offensive line remains a major concern.
The Redskins quite obviously have also been a significant work in progress after two years of semi-chaos under Steve Spurrier. Both Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey struggled in Gibbs's offense during the preseason, and with questions on the offensive and defensive lines, the Redskins are hardly a playoff lock, despite Gibbs's presence.
"The one thing you can say is that the NFC East is going to be competitive," Theismann said. "The Cowboys have a 41-year-old guy back there and Joe [Gibbs] is putting in a new system. You know that three of these teams will have a top seven defense -- Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington -- but I don't think there's any question that the Eagles are the elite team in this group. Right now, it's just a question of how long it takes everyone else to catch up."