Down they all went, one by one, the NFC East revealing its weaknesses and an early look at its identity on the same Sunday.
Once a powerful, proud division with no shortage of star power and contenders, it went 0-4 this past Sunday. Through two mostly unimpressive weeks, the NFC East’s combined record is 2-6 — and those two opening-week wins, by Dallas and Philadelphia, came by beating the New York Giants and Washington.
“Right now it doesn’t look good in any of the four places,” said Tony Dungy, a former NFL coach who’s now a league analyst for NBC. “It’s not what we’re used to seeing.”
The problems run deeper than each team’s record. Washington and Philadelphia have each been penalized 17 times and have two of the bottom three defenses. New York is last in the league in turnover differential at minus-8. And Dallas is ranked 26th in rush offense. All this, and it’s difficult not to point at the NFC East as the NFL’s worst division.
It’s early in the season, though, still a time of hope and optimism. Sure, it looks bad in four huge NFL markets, but where outsiders see weakness, players see opportunity. Washington is winless and has allowed 71 points, but linebackerBrian Orakpo acknowledged Tuesday that the other teams’ early stumbles have kept Washington in the division race.
“That’s the only thing I can see as upside, even though we’re 0-2,” Orakpo said. “Everybody lost the same week, so it’s kind of a wash in a way. That’s the only upside, but we do have to fix our problems.”
Dungy predicted that a nine- or 10-win team would win the East, the same as it did in 2012, when Washington started 3-6 and won seven in a row to finish with 10 victories and the division crown.
Now the race is on, not just to add a string of wins, but for each team to simply fix its problems and try to be consistent. Charley Casserly, the former NFL executive, said that because the season remains young, teams are less likely to overreact with major changes. Instead, they should remain in position and try to identify and fix problems, he said.
“Players put it behind them faster than anybody,” said Casserly, a former general manager with Washington and Houston. “Not that they don’t care, but they put it behind them. By the time they get in Wednesday, they’re ready to go on to the next one. So if you want to dwell on the last one, all you’re doing is hurting your team.”
He went on.
“You don’t panic,” said Casserly, who now appears on the NFL Network’s “Around the League” program. “You definitely want to win games, but you don’t panic.”
Still, the problems are clear. The Giants and quarterback Eli Manning have made too many mistakes and have intimidated no one with their running game. The Eagles’ offense, under first-year Coach Chip Kelly, is impressive, but Philadelphia’s defense has allowed an average of 460.5 yards in starting 1-1. The Redskins have problems everywhere, including a league-worst defense, an offense unable to execute its plan because it’s constantly playing from behind, and concerns at most position groups. Dallas seems closest to finding itself, but the early returns for its rush offense and first-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 scheme have been uninspiring.
Whichever team is first to find solid footing will have an advantage: five games remaining against division opponents.
“Nobody’s going to run away with this division,” Dungy said. “You’re going to have your opportunities. It really is who can get consistent quarterback play and who can get good defensive play in these next four or five weeks and build the thing.”
Dungy predicted that, like 2012 when Washington overcame its problems and hit a winning streak, another NFC East team will get hot at some point this season.
“Who can settle back into their game the quickest?” he said. “Dallas has a new defense, Philly has a new offense, and Washington and New York just have to settle back into who they are. . . . If I’m sitting here — somebody’s going to win this thing, probably with 10 wins, and so we’ve got a long time to get ourselves going.”
Orakpo said that was his attitude: that anything is possible, even a repeat in Washington.
“The division is still wide open,” he said. “We’re still only out by one game. It’s crazy, man. That’s how football is. That’s why we’re not overly concerned.”