- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

Pity the Washington Redskins.

Their 8-8 record in 2008 consigned them to the NFC East cellar but would’ve tied them for first in the AFC West. The Redskins were a wild-card team in 2007 at 9-7, a record that would’ve tied for the top spot in the NFC South.

All four NFC East teams - the Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles - finished at least .500 in each of the last two seasons.

No other division can meet that standard.

The Giants, Eagles, Cowboys and Redskins have won 35 more games than they have lost since 2005. The AFC South quartet of the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans fared one game better, but the NFC East foursome had more playoff victories (10 to eight) and Super Bowl participants (two to one).

“It was quite a division, and it will be again,” said ESPN studio host Chris Berman, adding that it’s “absolutely” the NFL’s best.

The AFC South could challenge that claim, as could the NFC South and AFC East. But no other division goes four deep like the NFC East.

“You’re in a division that’s brutal,” said Mike Tirico of “Monday Night Football.”

Some retooling

Last year, the Giants were the NFC’s top team and were 4-2 in NFC East play before being upset in the divisional round of the playoffs by the Eagles.

Since then, New York has welcomed back top pass rusher Osi Umenyiora, who missed last season with a knee injury, and added three solid free agents in defensive linemen Chris Canty (from Dallas) and Rocky Bernard and linebacker Michael Boley.

Philadelphia got younger at offensive tackle with free agents Stacy Andrews and Jason Peters replacing Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. But the big news was the signing of former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Will Vick add more excitement than controversy to an already productive offense?

Dallas returns six Pro Bowl players for the debut season of its gaudy new stadium despite saying goodbye to talented-but-troublesome receiver Terrell Owens and overhyped safety Roy Williams.

Washington owner Dan Snyder shelled out $41 million guaranteed for the top free agent, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, and used the team’s first-round pick on pass rusher Brian Orakpo, further strengthening a defense that ranked in the top six in fewest points and yards allowed.

The favorites

While some question the sensibility of signing Vick, who has been out of football for two years and is a magnet for controversy, former NFL safety Rodney Harrison likes the Eagles,.

“Donovan [McNabb] is the franchise quarterback,” Harrison said. “He’s taken that team to [five] NFC championship games and a Super Bowl, but quarterbacks get hurt. To have a Pro Bowl quarterback backing up a Pro Bowl quarterback - that’s phenomenal.”

The Eagles suddenly are chock full of playmakers with the additions of rookies LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin joining McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook and young receiver DeSean Jackson. Vick also could do some damage in the Wildcat formation.

But can the NFC’s best defense of 2008 withstand the death of coordinator Jim Johnson and the loss of franchise safety Brian Dawkins to free agency and linebacker Stewart Bradley to a season-ending injury?

As for the Giants, their defense may improved. “Their pass rush will be back,” Berman said. “They’ll run the ball great, but they’ve got to find someone to catch the ball.”

True, but the Giants struggled down the stretch and suffered a playoff-opening loss after receiver Plaxico Burress accidently shot himself in a New York nightclub; the team later cut their top wideout. None of the Giants’ current receivers really stood out in preseason. The team also lost Derrick Ward, the No. 2 back from the trio who gave the Giants the NFL’s top ground game of 2008.

The other two

Most everyone is picking the Giants or Eagles, who’ve won eight of the past nine division titles, but NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth gives the Redskins a chance to win the East for the first time in 18 years.

ESPN’s Ron Jaworski, a former Eagles quarterback, loves Haynesworth and Orakpo.

“Those guys will make a significant difference,” Jaworski said. “If you get pressure on the quarterback, it makes your secondary an awful lot better. Clearly the Redskins’ defense is much improved.”

Jaworski’s “Monday Night Football” colleague Jon Gruden, who coached Oakland and Tampa Bay the past 11 seasons, sees another key for the Redskins.

“It’s going to come down to how well their offensive line can play,” Gruden said. “They got some firepower. They got enough talent to make a lot of noise in the East. I’m excited about the Redskins.”

There’s not as much excitement about the Cowboys, who haven’t won a playoff game since 1996 despite all of owner Jerry Jones’ tinkering.

While Collinsworth thinks the Cowboys are better minus the tempestuous Owens, Berman said, “Dallas has fallen, if not under the radar, under the scoreboard.”

Owner’s box

Unlike the Eagles and Giants, whose owners give coaches Andy Reid and Tom Coughlin almost free rein to run their teams, the Cowboys and Redskins are dominated by Jones and Snyder.

“The Cowboys and the Redskins, you have to look at who has the final word,” Collinsworth said. “If a player is unhappy, is the coach the hammer? Does he have the final word? When a coach does, those are the teams that are successful. When the coach is a word but not the final word, those are very difficult places to coach.”

And given that the Cowboys are on their fifth coach in 13 years and the Redskins their sixth in Snyder’s 11 seasons, neither Zorn (8-8) nor Dallas’ third-year coach Wade Phillips (22-11) can expect to have the final word. If either fails to make the playoffs, it could well be his final season competing in the grueling NFC East.

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