- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

For several years the NFC East was a playground for the Philadelphia Eagles, never more so than last season. Stealing the lunch money from the wimpy Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Washington Redskins en route to a 13-3 record and the Super Bowl, the Eagles won the division by a whopping seven games over the tepid trio, who each went 6-10.

But the nerds have muscled up. As the season approaches its midpoint, no longer is this the NFC Least. All four teams, separated by half a game, own winning records. Philadelphia (4-2) is still a force although not the bully it was. The Giants (4-2), Redskins (4-2) and Cowboys (4-3) appear improved to varying degrees. Dallas already has beaten the Eagles, something it could not do last year nor in nine of its previous 10 meetings.

“Until we prove otherwise, Philadelphia is the team to beat,” said Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, whose team has a big game against the Redskins at home Sunday. “But there’s no question the other three of us are better. I don’t know if any division is better.”

With its rivalries, crazed fans and three cities within a train ride of one another, the NFC East has been known for its intense, feisty atmosphere. But not lately. The most recent period of good times was 1989 through 1996. During that span, four straight Super Bowl winners and five in six years came from the division, and any three of the four teams usually were good, if not great, in any given year. (That, of course, does not count the geographically and competitively challenged Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, who moved to the NFC West in 2002.)

Those days appear to be back, at least so far. Given the tradition and history and rowdy stadium environments that go back to the premerger NFL Eastern Conference, this is, to many, football the way it should be.

“It was a fun time back when I played, and teams took pride in the fact that winning the division was a big accomplishment,” said former Cowboys fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston, who played on three Super Bowl winners in the 1990s. “Three of the five teams were always getting into the playoffs. The fine line we had to walk was beating each other up. It was hard to go to Philadelphia and New York and RFK Stadium and expect to win those games.”

Johnston, who will man the Fox broadcast booth for the Redskins-Giants game, said he expects all four teams to hang in there until the end.

“It would not shock me if I’m sitting here in January and I open the paper to see any of the teams atop the division,” he said. “You can make a case for all four teams.”

All this has prompted a flashback for Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who fought some brutal divisional wars during his first tenure from 1981 through 1992. “Very, very physical teams that play extremely hard,” he said of the NFC East, then and again now. “I tell you, it’s great for the fans but not very good for the teams that are in it.”

Not necessarily.

“I’m an East Coast guy, and to me, this is the old Eastern Division,” Accorsi said. “It’s these four teams. I love it. I love being in this division. This has always been a colorful, exciting division, full of personalities. The cities are great. It’s great having us all competitive again.”

Gibbs is part of the reason for that. No division boasts such a coaching pedigree. Under Gibbs, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Redskins went to four Super Bowls, winning three. The Cowboys’ Bill Parcells, a future Hall of Famer, guided the Giants to wins in two Super Bowls, took New England to a third and rebuilt three franchises. Both coaches struggled last year, Gibbs in his first year back, Parcells in his second year in Dallas, but they appear to have figured things out.

So, apparently, has Tom Coughlin, who had a rocky 2004 season after replacing Jim Fassel as the Giants’ coach. But for all the noise about his hard-line approach, Coughlin did good things in eight years as coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. And then there is Andy Reid, who won his first NFC Championship after the Eagles won four straight division titles and has the highest career winning percentage of any active coach with at least five years experience.

The quality of the quarterbacks has increased, too. After a terrible, injury-marred season, the Redskins’ Mark Brunell is having an outstanding year. Drew Bledsoe, cut loose by Buffalo, is helping Dallas despite his ill-timed interception that resulted in a loss to Seattle on Sunday. In his first season as a full-time starter, the Giants’ Eli Manning is showing poise and confidence and engineering late-game touchdown drives. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ Donovan McNabb continues to perform at a superstar level.

“If the two most important things are the head coach and the quarterback, then the NFC East is pretty hard to beat,” Johnston said. “Those are some pretty strong coach-quarterback combinations.”

After the Redskins demolished San Francisco on Sunday, Gibbs watched with more than passing interest the games involving the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles, all of which went down to the wire. More are on the way. So far, there have been just three head-to-head division games, all involving Dallas.

“This is it, men, the NFC East,” Gibbs said he told his team. “You’re gonna see black and blue when you come out of this thing.”

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