Opinion: Now NFL’s laughingstock, NFC East facing perfect storm of challenges in 2020

For decades, the NFC East commanded respect throughout the NFL. 

Many regarded the division as one of the best in football as the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Football Team and New York Giants regularly boasted masterful coaching, a physical brand of football, impressive quarterback play and hotly contested playoff races. 

Many times, the winner of the division would emerge to embark on deep postseason runs. Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, NFC East teams have earned 21 Super Bowl appearances and 13 titles, both league bests in that span.

But those days are gone, and now the NFC East has gotten off to a historically poor start. After four games each, this quartet owns a combined 3-12-1 record. The Eagles lead the way at 1-2-1, with Washington and the Cowboys trailing at 1-3 and the Giants bringing up the rear at 0-4. The mark is the second-worst overall divisional start in league history, barely nudging out the 1984 AFC Central, which opened that season with a 3-13 record.

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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree (48) hits the arm of New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) resulting in an interception during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

At first blush, the collective futility of the division’s four teams is startling. However, upon closer examination, the many factors add up to a perfect storm for this quartet. 

Coaching changes and coronavirus

Dallas, Washington and New York all fired coaches in the last year and replaced them this offseason with outside hires. Mike McCarthy brought a Super Bowl ring and offensive expertise to Dallas, where, whether realistically or not, Jerry Jones annually expects a new Lombardi Trophy for his collection. Ron Rivera, fired after nine seasons in Carolina, started over with a Washington undergoing a reboot on every front. Meanwhile, the Giants made a leap of faith in hiring Joe Judge, a special teams coordinator who had never before been a head coach.

McCarthy inherited the most competitive roster of the trio while Washington and New York both have extensive rebuilds to conduct. Changing a culture and instilling new methodology proves challenging most years, but the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic only further complicated matters for these new coaches. They didn’t get to physically introduce their players to their playbooks during spring practices. Instead, training camp represented the first face-to-face meetings for many, as well as the first practices. The preseason's cancellation also robbed McCarthy, Rivera and Judge of four dress rehearsals and additional evaluation opportunities. The first four weeks of the season have included a degree of experimentation and trial by fire for the coaches and their new players. 

For example, Dallas has talent on offense, but new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit has gotten off to a historically bad start, allowing a franchise-worst 146 points so far. In some cases, the pieces don’t fit, and an offseason or two of talent acquisition could be required before Nolan has the ideal players to run the system he likes. Meanwhile, chemistry also remains a work in progress. As the season progresses, it’s possible that Dallas could see improvement on this front. 

Injury woes

Philadelphia, New York, Dallas and Washington have all faced significant injuries. The Eagles opened the year with four backup offensive linemen pressed into starting roles and also have played without their top wide receivers. The Giants lost standout running back Saquon Barkley for the season, increasing the pressure on quarterback Daniel Jones. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have five starters on injured reserve. Washington’s best offensive lineman, guard Brandon Scherff, is on injured reserve, top rookie pass-rusher Chase Young has been out the last two weeks.

Depth-related challenges present themselves every year, but the effects are more significant this year given the lack of developmental opportunities for young backups. In many cases, coaches have no choice but to play the reserves sooner than they intended, even if it means their units will struggle.

Quarterback struggles

The Giants and Washington both opened the year with second-year quarterbacks facing scrutiny. Jones, the No. 6 pick of the 2019 draft, and Dwayne Haskins, the No. 15 pick, both looked like projects during their rookie seasons, and a lack of continuity hampered their development. Jones has had to learn a new offense under coordinator Jason Garrett, while Haskins was tasked with doing the same in Scott Turner's attack. Both had to digest information in a virtual setting and cope with limited offseason reps.

Their starts have been rocky at best. Jones has thrown for just two touchdowns with five interceptions and three fumble. He has completed 61% of his passes and owns a 68.3 quarterback ranking, the second-worst mark among qualified passers. Meanwhile, Haskins has thrown four touchdowns and three interceptions, completing 60.9% of his passes and posting a 80.3 quarterback rating. Rivera benched Haskins, hoping that third-year pro Kyle Allen will give the team a better chance to win the division.

Growing pains at quarterback have hampered both teams. Washington ranks 29th in scoring at 19.8 points per game while the Giants are last at 11.8 points per game.

The Giants hope more experience will lead to growth for Jones. Meanwhile, although Washington ha turned to Allen as its starter, Rivera says his staff hopes a step back will allow for Haskins to better process the system and mature.

Youth can’t be used as an excuse for the Eagles, who have seen Carson Wentz struggle greatly. The fifth-year pro has gotten off to the worst start of his career, completing only 60% of his passes while tallying just four touchdown passes and seven interceptions, tying his single-season total for each of the three previous years.

Wentz has needed time to adjust to a new line and cast of receivers, but the quarterback also is guilty of trying to do too much. Last week, he did a better job of getting the ball out of his hands more quickly and playing with greater discipline. The Eagles need more of that to have a chance to rebound. 

Of all the teams, Philadelphia probably has the best chance for a turnaround. Doug Pederson’s teams have weathered slow starts before, and the Eagles have a playoff-caliber roster if everyone gets healthy. Dallas does as well, but the Cowboys will need dramatic improvement in chemistry and execution from their defense. Their offense leads the league in yards (509.5 per game) but also has an NFL-worst seven turnovers. 

Rivera is preaching hope to his players. He points to his 2014 Carolina Panthers team that rebounded from 3-7-1 to close out the year on a four-game win streak to claim the division. But a lot of miraculous growth and improvements across the board would have to take place for Washington to pull off such a feat. Like the Giants, the focus in Washington will likely have to (and rightfully should) center on growth and development. After another offseason of talent acquisition, perhaps franchise turnarounds are possible. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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