A year ago, the preseason buildup was that the NFC East was on its way to recapturing its glory years, when the Washington Redskins, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys combined to win eight Super Bowls in 14 years between the 1982 and '95 seasons.
The Redskins had made their usual offseason splashes, including re-hiring Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs as their coach and trading for tailback Clinton Portis. Bill Parcells was coming off a playoff appearance in his first season with the Cowboys, and the Hall of Fame-bound coach's teams always had improved by at least three victories in his second season with them. The Giants had hired taskmaster Tom Coughlin as their coach and had traded for player chosen with the No. 1 draft pick, quarterback Eli Manning.
No matter. The rest of the division flopped while the Philadelphia Eagles won their fourth straight NFC East title with ease. The Eagles rested their starters and lost their final two regular-season games yet still won the division by a whopping seven games, going 13-3 while the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants floundered to matching 6-10 marks. It was the only division in the NFL in which the second-place team failed to reach .500.
The Eagles say they aren't expecting a similarly pitiable showing by their division rivals this season. The Cowboys were particularly aggressive in the offseason, signing quarterback Drew Bledsoe and a string of other free agents and using three of the first 42 choices in the draft to bolster their defense. The Giants also made some expensive free-agent additions, and Manning enters his second NFL season as the club's unquestioned starter. The Redskins were unusually quiet in the offseason, by their standards, but are crossing their fingers that Gibbs will be more comfortable and Patrick Ramsey will give them some decent play at quarterback.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb said Wednesday at the Eagles' training camp in Bethlehem, Pa., that he expects the division to be improved.
"I kind of see the NFC East to be what everyone expected it to be last year," McNabb said. "You had Coughlin coming in. You had Parcells and Gibbs. It was kind of the division that everyone was going to be watching. I kind of see that being this year. Dallas has made some big moves. Washington has another year with Gibbs. Their defense played well last year. Offensively, I think they're going to kind of step forward. I think Eli Manning is going to have a good year this year . . . . He's getting better. In his second year, he knows kind of what he's seeing out there. Defensively, they did a good job as well.
"It's going to be exciting for us to play against those guys twice, but hopefully we can do what we've been doing and come out on top."
More From McNabb
McNabb said he hasn't seen a replay of the Eagles' Super Bowl defeat to the New England Patriots to end last season, just as he never has watched a tape of any of the team's losses in three straight NFC title games between the 2001 and 2003 seasons.
"I don't even watch it," McNabb said. "When they have it on [TV], I change the channel. It's something you've already been through and there's no need to watch it again. We're not playing the Patriots first in the preseason for the first time in a while. It's nothing that you need to harp on. You focus in on what you need to do now.
"When we lost the NFC championships, the same way. I've never watched the games. When it's over, you understand kind of what happened in the game and what you need to do. That's when you come up here in training camp and work on the things that didn't go right the previous game." . . . McNabb remains elusive about whether anything was wrong with him physically during the Super Bowl. There was speculation after the game, some of it by Eagles players, that he'd been fatigued, sick or knocked woozy by a hit on his head.
"I took a couple shots," he said Wednesday. "But, again, it was nothing to me getting sick or me getting tired in a way where I can't go for a play. It just threw me off when I heard [the speculation] about it . . . . When you're in a situation like that, you have to give all that you have. If you're not out there selling out, just giving all that you've got in your body, in the Super Bowl, you don't need to be playing. Looking across the board, all of us did that. It's kind of unfortunate the way things went in that direction after we lost the Super Bowl, but hopefully that's all behind us now and we can all move on."
Pressed on whether he'd been shaken up by a hit during the game, McNabb said: "Not even that. I've been hit before. In the head, in the back, wherever. We all get shaken up on a hit, but we bounce up and we go the next play. It was nothing that kind of pulled me away from that next play, no matter when it was that I got hit. I was still focused and ready to go." . . . McNabb says he doesn't mean to be critical of Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre when he says that he thinks he did the right thing by staying out of the Eagles' contract dispute with wide receiver Terrell Owens. Favre took the opposite approach during the offseason, publicly criticizing his top wideout, Javon Walker, when Walker was at odds with the Packers over his contract.
McNabb says he merely is stating his opinion and isn't trying to generate a controversy.
"I've always believed in kind of being a better man than the situation," he said. "People may assume things. People may use their own opinions. But when it comes to the question being for me to answer, I just try to be myself and just answer in a professional manner. In that situation, you look back and you watch and you're like, 'Where's the finger-pointing?' Not that I ever talked bad on Brett because I'm a Brett Favre fan. I watched Brett all through his career, and I continue to watch Brett. It's just an opinion that I have that a lot of people may not have. Some people may have it as well." . . . McNabb found out from a reporter that Reid is on a weight-loss kick and has dropped 37 pounds. "That's something he wouldn't tell me," McNabb said, "because then I would really keep an eye on it. I can see he has a little bit more bounce to him when he's running from field to field. Now that you've said that, I'm going to keep an eye on it and see if he'll lose a little bit more."
McNabb credits Reid with setting the tone that has enabled the Eagles to sustain their success over what is, by today's NFL standards, an extended period. But now the team, McNabb says, is largely self-regulating.
"It obviously starts with the big guy," McNabb said. "Just kind of when he came in, the guys that he brought in and the guys that he kept here. Just the approach of just establishing the discipline aspect of things and kind of teaching us kind of what he expected of us, and being out on the field, letting us be loose. And then from there on, it went into the veterans. It went to Brian Dawkins, who's been here now for 10 years. We had Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Hugh Douglas. I was drafted that same year [Reid] came in. So year by year, I've kind of learned the approach and the way to prepare myself each year, and kind of make sure the younger guys understand the method. Right now, you're looking at a team full of veterans, full of leaders to kind of push and motivate the rest of the guys. Andy doesn't really have to do much as far as the teaching aspect of it. It's just how the leaders step up to kind of make sure we're all on the same page."
It doesn't take an in-depth study of the Eagles to see that McNabb is the team's unquestioned leader.
"I've always gone by the method of, 'Leaders are born. Leaders aren't taught,'" he said. "I always felt I was the leader no matter what I was doing. Obviously your approach changes depending on the people around you. My method has always been to lead by example. I'm not a big rah-rah guy to pump up anyone. We're a team full of jokesters, pretty much. But jokesters when it comes to being off the field or on the side. When we're on the field, we're focused. I try to be the guy to make sure . . . guys are in the right position and having fun while we're doing it. You're seeing smiling and laughing. We're making plays and coming back and high-fiving."
Pressure Is on Mariucci
Quarterback Joey Harrington now isn't the only person in the Detroit organization under pressure for the Lions to succeed this season. The burden also falls on Coach Steve Mariucci, especially now that front-office chief Matt Millen has the ongoing support of the owners. Millen received a five-year contract extension as president and general manager . . . .
Chicago Bears cornerback Jerry Azumah underwent arthroscopic hip surgery Wednesday and is to be sidelined three to four weeks . . . . The Indianapolis Colts likely will be without wideout Brandon Stokley for three to four weeks because of a dislocated shoulder that he suffered during a practice in Tokyo preparing for this weekend's American Bowl exhibition opener against the Atlanta Falcons . . . . Agent Carl Poston met with New York Jets officials Wednesday night about free-agent cornerback Ty Law. The Jets appear to be the front-runner to sign the four-time Pro Bowl selection, who was released by the Patriots in an offseason salary-cap move and is recovering from the foot injury that caused him to miss the second half of last season.