When Joe Gibbs went out to dinner with his wife, Pat, at a Reston steakhouse last Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles had already come back from four down in the final minutes against San Diego, the New York Giants trailed the Denver Broncos by 13 points and the Dallas Cowboys were moving toward a game-winning field goal in Seattle. By the time the Washington Redskins' coach had finished his meal, he learned that the Giants had rallied to win, and the Cowboys had thrown away an almost certain win with a Drew Bledsoe interception late in the game.
"Every week it's something else up here," Gibbs said Monday, the day after Washington's 52-17 rout of the San Francisco 49ers. "I told our guys that this is it, men, the NFC East, and you're gonna see black and blue when you come out of this thing. It's physical teams that play extremely hard. It's great for the fans, but not for the teams that are in it."
Another one of those stellar NFC East matchups occurs this afternoon at Giants Stadium when the Redskins face the Giants in a rivalry that dates from 1932. Both teams are tied for first place in the division with the Philadelphia Eagles, all at 4-2, and the Cowboys are 4-3. The NFC East is now the only division in which four teams have winning records, and the teams' success has many around the league thinking back to the days of George Allen, Tom Landry, Dick Vermeil, Bill Parcells, Buddy Ryan and Gibbs -- a 25-year stretch in which the East was arguably the best division in the game.
"The NFC East was always the premier division in the NFL, and the division winner always bred the best team in the playoffs, the most battle-tested," Houston General Manager Charley Casserly, who began his career with the Redskins in the 1970s, said earlier this season. "Look at the coaches there now. Eventually, you knew it was going to be a highly competitive division again."
Said Gibbs: "In order to win that [division title], you've got to play well on the road, you've got to be physical, you've got to be a studly group just to get out of there. And then it enhances your chances in the playoffs. Everybody in this group, the bad news is everybody's pretty dad-gummed good. These were the games I liked to watch when I was out of football."
The division was formed in 1970 after the NFL/AFL merger and also included the St. Louis-Phoenix-Arizona Cardinals until the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions following the 2001 season. The Cardinals were never much of a factor, winning division titles in 1974 and '75 under Don Coryell, one of Gibbs's football mentors. Dallas dominated the East in the 1970s, winning seven division titles despite the presence of Allen in Washington, who managed only one division title, in 1972, the first time the Redskins played in the Super Bowl.
The Redskins won four NFC East titles in the 1980s, the Giants won the division three times between 1986 and 1990 and Dallas began dominating with five straight division titles and six out of seven from 1992 to '98.
Philadelphia has been the best NFC East team of the current decade, winning four straight championships since 2001 and advancing to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season, when the rest of the division essentially skidded in the wrong direction -- the three other teams each finished 6-10.
Still, over the last 35 years, the NFC East has generally been more competitive than any division in football. In 21 of those seasons, at least three division teams had records of at least .500 or better in the same year. The Golden Age in the East came between 1986 and 1995, when division teams won seven of 10 Super Bowls -- two by the Redskins (after the 1987 and 1991 seasons), two by the Giants (1986 and 1990) and three by the Cowboys (1992, 1993 and 1995). Overall, NFC East teams have won 10 of the 39 Super Bowls. The next closest division has won six.
"I think in the beginning it was George [Allen] and Landry going after each other," said Dave Klein, a longtime New Jersey pro football writer-historian who has chronicled the division since its inception. "Then it was Buddy Ryan in Philadelphia, with Parcells and Gibbs obviously in the mix, too. It became a very contentious division. Even when a lot of the teams were down, they all seemed down together. I think it's the best division in football right now. There are better teams in other divisions, but no one is as evenly matched as this."
Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi concurred. "Regarding our division, I think it all starts with this: four outstanding coaches," he said. "One already in the Hall of Fame [Gibbs]; one definitely going in [Parcells] and two outstanding coaches in [Andy] Reid and [Tom] Coughlin. This is ultimately a coach's game and that's where it starts.
"Sooner or later, the top coaches will win. Sure, the rest of us have to do the organizational building, but you can't do it without the coach. In addition, I'm a big believer in tradition. It's like the great schools like Michigan and Notre Dame, they come back quicker for some reason. These four franchises are rich in history."
The East's resurgence comes after a 2004 season in which the Eagles dominated with a 13-3 record, while the other three teams each finished 6-10. But Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb said when the Cowboys hired Parcells before the 2003 season, the Giants brought in Coughlin, a former Parcells assistant with the Giants in the 1980s, and the Redskins brought back Gibbs, both in 2004, he knew it was only a matter of time before the NFC East became extremely competitive once again.
"Since they came in, it was the division everyone was talking about," McNabb said. "I think what it is right now is playing under those coaches and understanding their systems. A lot of the same players are still there. It's just that they've bought into the systems and guys are playing well together. It was always a tough division in my mind. You just have to be ready every weekend."
"I knew it was going to get better," Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. "With the guys you see those teams bring in, the coaches that were brought in, and with guys getting used to the different systems, I knew it was going to be tougher than it has been."
Parcells's decision to get back into coaching with the Cowboys apparently had much to do with returning to the NFC East.
Before he took the job, Dallas owner Jerry Jones told the Newark Star Ledger that Parcells told him that "playing against the Giants, Eagles and Redskins, it's like going to Las Vegas and seeing the current stars and the stars on the way down. Then you walk to the back, to this enormous room where Elvis and Frank Sinatra are. The Big Room. That's where the NFC East is. The Big Room."
Reid also is a product of a proud old division, having come to Philadelphia after an extended stay with the Green Bay Packers in the old NFC Central. Parcells has rebuilt four franchises, the Giants, Patriots, Jets and now the Cowboys, and his rivalry with Gibbs, a winner of three Super Bowls in his first stint in Washington, has been well documented.
"What made the rivalry so great is there were a lot of great players playing in it," Parcells once told an interviewer about the Redskins-Giants rivalries of the 1980s. "Those games were clean games, they were hard-played games. It was the highest level of competition; I've said this many times. I thought [Gibbs] was the best coach that I've ever coached against. We were very fierce rivals for many years, and I just have tremendous admiration and respect for what he did there, and how he did it. He's what you would call the most worthy of opponents."
Gibbs said Parcells always had a "knack for getting people to play great."
All four division teams have had decent quarterback play this season, and all four play a rugged brand of football. The Giants may have the 31st-ranked defense in the league, but they've also forced an NFC-best 18 turnovers in six games and, in Eli Manning, have one of the game's most talented young quarterbacks. The Eagles are having problems running the ball, but still have one of the toughest quarterbacks in the game in McNabb and the league's top-rated passing offense.
The Cowboys have lost two heartbreakers in the final seconds, but pound the football on offense and are ranked No. 7 in total defense. The Redskins, with a resurgent Mark Brunell at quarterback, are No. 2 in the NFL in total offense and No. 4 in total defense and can pound the ball with running back Clinton Portis or play long ball with Brunell and wide receiver Santana Moss, who is averaging 19.6 yards per catch and has the most receiving yards in the league.
"I think [the division] is very close to where it once was," said former running back and special teams ace Brian Mitchell, who began his career in Washington in 1990 before moving on to play for the Eagles and Giants. "The division used to be so strong, and you always knew you would have good games against those teams. We always had great coaches, smart players. We were very physical and we all ran the ball and we all could stop the run. Philly can't run the ball right now, but everyone else does and the division is definitely getting back to where it was."
Redskins tackle Jon Jansen has been playing in the division since 1999 and relishes the NFC East rivalries.
"It's tremendously competitive, even when some teams are on a down year," he said. "The biggest thing is it's such a physical division. Teams run the ball to win ballgames. The defenses are physical. You've got guys who will come up and just smack you. I think it's what the cities in the division are all about. I know Washington isn't really a blue-collar town, but these fans kind of want to be blue-collar fans, and that's what the NFC East is, a blue-collar division."
Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report.