- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2004

The NFC East hasn’t been the NFC East for some time now, more than a decade. It used to be the NFL’s marquee division, the province of LT and the Hogs and the Minister of Defense and Dallas’ feared Flex. On any given Sunday (or Monday), the Redskins might show up at Texas Stadium in combat fatigues or Buddy Ryan might put a bounty on an opposing player or the Giants might break Joe Theismann’s leg or a scrum in Philadelphia might turn into a Bodybag Game.

Ah, those were the days.

Fortunately, there are indications, strong ones, that the NFC East might be in the midst of a renaissance. It began with the hiring of coaches — Bill Parcells in Dallas, Joe Gibbs in Washington and Tom Coughlin in New York. Throw in Philly’s Andy Reid, and you’ve got two coaches who have won multiple Super Bowls (Gibbs three, Parcells two) and two others who have reached multiple conference title games (Reid three, Coughlin two). What other division can match that?

Then there’s the recent offseason maneuvering, particularly the mad scramble for quarterbacks. The Redskins traded for three-time Pro Bowler Mark Brunell, the Cowboys won the bidding for the once-coveted Drew Henson and the Giants made the biggest splash of all, striking a huge draft day deal for No.1 pick Eli Manning.

The Eagles, set at the QB spot with Donovan McNabb, have loaded up at other positions, adding pass rusher Jevon Kearse and pass catcher Terrell Owens. Then they aggressively moved up in Round1 Saturday to draft the offensive lineman of their dreams, 360-pound Arkansas Razorback Shaun Andrews.

The escalation in the NFC East is so fevered that the Cowboys are actually taking heat for trading out of the first round and stockpiling a second No.1 for next year. Next year? Who cares about next year? It’s all about Sept.12, baby, the first Sunday of the season.

So much has been going on in the division the past few months that it’s been hard to keep track of it all. Was it the Cowboys who signed defensive end Marcellus Wiley, the 2001 Pro Bowler, or was it the Giants? (It was the Cowboys.) Was it the Giants who signed defensive tackle Norman Hand, the Chargers’ former franchise player, or was it the Eagles? (It was the Giants.)

It’s especially confusing because James Thrash — the one-time Eagle (and before that, Redskin) — is a Redskin again. The Redskins also have picked off a couple of Giants, defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and linebacker Michael Barrow. At this point, you can’t tell the players even with a scorecard.

By Week 1, though, we should have everything sorted out. And in a year or two, I suspect, the NFC East will once more be a beast. The division has been dormant for so long, you forget how dominant it was Way Back When. From 1970 to 1993, it supplied 15 of the conference’s 24 Super Bowl finalists. In 1972, 1980, 1982 and 1986, the conference title game was an all-NFC East affair. Here’s a stat that really shows how rugged the division was, though: During his first term as Redskins coach, Gibbs was 41-33 against the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles — and 99-32 against everybody else.

In 1983, Joe’s second year, he coached against Tom Landry in Dallas, Parcells in New York and Dick Vermeil in Philadelphia. All three had either won a Super Bowl or eventually would win one. If you didn’t come to play back then, against that kind of competition, you got your helmet handed to you. But with Gibbs, Parcells, Reid and Coughlin now presiding in the NFC East, the coaching in the division is pretty close to the early ‘80s level — and infinitely more accomplished than, say, the coaching in the NFC North (Mike Sherman, Mike Tice, Lovie Smith, Steve Mariucci).

Speaking of 1983, a thought crossed my mind the other day as the Redskins prepared to make their first-round selection. The thought was this: If Gibbs takes Kellen Winslow, his offense could be — repeat, could be — the most talented he’s ever had, better even than the ‘83 group that scored 541 points. I mean, let’s take it position by position:

QB — 34-year-old Joe Theismann vs. 34-year-old Mark Brunell (draw).

RB — John Riggins vs. Clinton Portis (edge to Portis, in my book).

WR — Charlie Brown (he was the leading receiver in 1983) and Art Monk vs. Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner (edge to Brown/Monk).

TE — Don Warren/Doc Walker vs. Winslow (big edge offensively to Winslow).

OL — The Hogs vs. Chris Samuels, Jon Jansen, Randy Thomas et al. (edge to the Hogs).

K — Mark Moseley vs. John Hall (edge to Hall; Moseley missed 14 field goal tries in 1983 and was on the downside).

In terms of talent, Gibbs would have had at least as much to work with, I’m convinced, as he did in 1983. But, of course, the Redskins didn’t take Winslow; they sensibly drafted for defense and took safety Sean Taylor. Anyway, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I return you to your regularly scheduled program …

Since the Cowboys’ last championship in 1995, the Eagles have essentially been propping up the division. The Giants made a semi-miraculous Super Bowl run in 2000 — only to be manhandled by the Ravens — but for the most part the NFC East has been Philly and a cloud of dust. Jerry Jones got a little too full of himself in Dallas, Dan Snyder did likewise in Washington and, well, you’ve seen the results. The Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game since 1996, and the Redskins have managed one postseason berth since 1992. As for the Giants, they’ve been on a yo-yo the past eight years, posting records of 6-10, 10-5-1, 8-8, 7-9, 12-4, 7-9, 10-6 and 4-12.

It hasn’t been pretty, seeing the NFC East neutered like this. Inevitable, perhaps, but difficult to watch. Now the division appears to be on the road to recovery — though, considering the ages of Gibbs (63), Parcells (63 in August) and Coughlin (58 in August), it might be short-lived.

In other words, enjoy it while you can.

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