Last season brought a return to glory for the NFC East, with the Philadelphia Eagles winning their first Super Bowl title. There were reasons to expect the division to be equally prominent and more competitive this season, with franchise quarterback Carson Wentz returning to the Eagles’ lineup while competitors fortified their rosters to try to close the gap on the defending champs.
Five weeks into the season, the NFC East is plenty competitive — but for the wrong reasons. The Washington Redskins’ loss Monday night in New Orleans left the division without a single team with a winning record. The Eagles are stumbling. The Dallas Cowboys are faring no better, and the New York Giants are losing their gamble that they could put off rebuilding and have success during what’s left of quarterback Eli Manning’s tenure.
“We’ve got to take a real hard look in the mirror,” Wentz said following the Eagles’ defeat Sunday in Philadelphia to the Minnesota Vikings, in a refrain that could be echoed these days in the locker room of each NFC East team.
All four of the division’s teams lost this weekend, with the Giants falling Sunday at Carolina and the Cowboys succumbing that night at Houston. The NFC East is the NFL’s lone division without a team above .500. The Redskins lead with a record of 2-2, followed by the Eagles and Cowboys at 2-3 and the Giants at 1-4.
It’s the stuff of thorough mediocrity.
The most surprising early-season missteps are those of the Eagles, who are eight months removed from their memorable Super Bowl triumph over the New England Patriots in Minneapolis, which was achieved via the go-for-broke coaching bravado of Doug Pederson and the quarterbacking excellence of backup Nick Foles.
There was little reason to suspect that the Eagles would not be right back in the Super Bowl-contending mix this season. Wentz had been a league MVP front-runner last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury in December. The Eagles kept Foles rather than trading the reigning Super Bowl MVP in the offseason, with his value elevated. That enabled them to avoid feeling any pressure to rush Wentz back into the lineup.
But the offense is misfiring. The Eagles are yet to score more than 23 points in a game this season. They’ve lost two of three games since Wentz’s return.
“It’s self-inflicted,” Pederson said Sunday. “We’re shooting ourselves with penalties and turnovers that are hurting our offense. . . . All those things we talk about from Day 1 of OTAs, we’re not doing. So we’ve got to get back to that.”
History is not on the Eagles’ side: Only one of the seven previous Super Bowl winners to start the subsequent season 2-3 rebounded to reach the playoffs.
“I kind of feel like that’s where we were two years ago,” Wentz said. “We were a young team making these mistakes, kind of having those ebbs and flows. Last year you didn’t see a lot of that.”
The Eagles were a resilient team last season, when Pederson held things together despite the injuries suffered by Wentz, left tackle Jason Peters and other key players. Now they must demonstrate similar resourcefulness and resolve. Tailback Jay Ajayi was placed on the injured reserve list Monday because of a knee injury, reportedly a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“Frustrated? Yes. Concerned? No,” Wentz said. “We have veteran guys on this team, guys that have been through it all, that know how to win.”
The Cowboys and Giants were playoff teams two seasons ago before plummeting last season. Both expected to be back in contention this season. The Cowboys believed they were undone last year by the six-game suspension served by tailback Ezekiel Elliott under the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Having Elliott back, they trusted, would enable them to recapture the magic of their 2016 season when quarterback Dak Prescott and Elliott became immediate stars as rookies and the Cowboys won the division.
It hasn’t happened that way. Elliott is on pace to top 1,500 rushing yards. But Prescott has been unable to get the passing game going following an offseason in which tight end Jason Witten retired to the ESPN broadcast booth and the Cowboys opted against retaining wide receiver Dez Bryant.
The Giants’ dismal 2017 season led to the dismissals of Ben McAdoo as their coach and Jerry Reese as their general manager. The new brain trust of General Manager Dave Gettleman and Coach Pat Shurmur stuck with Manning at quarterback and used the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft on tailback Saquon Barkley. Odell Beckham Jr. was given a contract extension that made him the league’s highest-paid wide receiver.
But Manning has had his issues playing behind a leaky offensive line, and Shurmur’s offense has not always put the talents of Beckham and Barkley on full display. Things clicked with a 31-point outing against the Panthers, but even that resulted in a two-point loss, thanks to a decisive 63-yard field goal by Carolina kicker Graham Gano. And it came only after Beckham addressed teammates Saturday after taping an interview with ESPN, aired Sunday, in which he questioned the offensive scheme and didn’t offer an endorsement of Manning.
Beckham’s frustration had been evident earlier, following a loss to the Saints at the Meadowlands a week before the game in Carolina.
“I don’t know,” Beckham said that day. “I’m doing everything I can. I put my all into this. I’ve sacrificed everything. Especially coming toward this year, I’ve sacrificed. I’ve made personal changes and done all I can to be the best teammate and to bring everything that I can every Sunday. So it’s a little disappointing . . . You work way too hard five, six days a week for 60 minutes of football. So I hate to get out there and waste those 60 minutes.”
The woes of the NFC East were on display for the “Monday Night Football” TV audience in the Redskins-Saints game. The football-watching public gets no respite from the division’s shortcomings, with the Eagles and Giants set to play Thursday night at MetLife Stadium in another prime-time game.
“We need to get the bad taste out of our mouth fast and go on the road to New York,” Wentz said Sunday. “Thursday night will be here before we know it . . . Just put this one behind us. Learn from it. But you don’t have to dwell on it too long.”