- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2020

The NFC East was the worst division in football last year. Heavy turnover followed.

After the division went a combined 24-40 in the regular season, three of its four teams changed coaches. The New York Giants fired Pat Shurmur, hiring Joe Judge. The Dallas Cowboys moved on from Jason Garrett and brought in Mike McCarthy. Washington replaced interim coach Bill Callahan with Ron Rivera, also firing team president Bruce Allen. Only the Philadelphia Eagles, who made the playoffs, kept their structure intact.

Despite all those changes, the NFC East hasn’t taken a step up, Actually, a quarter into the new season, the once-proud division seems to have gotten worse.

Through four games, the NFC East is a combined 3-12-1 — the second-worst start in a division since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, according to ESPN. In the last 50 years, only the 1984 AFC Central has gotten off to a worse start (3-13). Had the division-leading 1-2-1 Philadelphia Eagles lost to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, this year’s NFC East would own the record.

All four teams have major problems. The Cowboys (1-3) can’t stop anyone and have surrendered 146 points, tied for the 11th-most in league history. The Giants (0-4) have gone back-to-back games without scoring a touchdown for the first time since 1998. Washington is young, inexperienced and doesn’t know whether Dwayne Haskins is the answer at quarterback. The Eagles’ offensive line is decimated and quarterback Carson Wentz looked broken through three games (He played better Sunday).

This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Washington. But coach Ron Rivera has acknowledged that if the NFC East is up for grabs, the team might have to change its priorities.

“At one point you want to build and you want to build, and now you’re looking at the opportunity to potentially win this,” Rivera said. “You start thinking along those lines and start thinking: ‘You know what, maybe we need to do that. Maybe we need to turn in and intercept.’”

Rivera knows what it’s like to win a bad division. As the former coach of the Carolina Panthers, his team went 7-8-1 in 2014 and won the NFC South. The Panthers, too, were just 3-8-1 before riding a four-game win streak to end the season and clinch a playoff berth. The Panthers became only the second team to make the playoffs with a losing record in a nonstrike season.

“It was right there for the taking,” Rivera said.

Washington’s upcoming stretch will be key in determining whether it has a realistic shot at winning the division. After this week’s outing against the Los Angeles Rams, Washington embarks on a three-game slate against New York, Dallas and New York again. The team will still have a lot of football left to play, but banking wins over rivals can go a long way. Last year’s Eagles, for instance, won the division at 9-7 in large part due to their 5-1 divisional record.

As a whole, the NFC East has been blown out in non-division games this year. The teams have combined for a minus-125 point differential in those games, going 2-11-1, according to Pro Football Reference.

The games have left coaches in the division frustrated. Judge lost his top playmaker, running back Saquon Barkley, to a torn ACL in Week 2. McCarthy ripped the Cowboys for their defense, calling the number of points allowed “outrageous.” Rivera wants to see his offense improve, noting Monday that Washington’s defense has “played well enough at times to give us a chance.” Eagles coach Doug Pederson has struggled to explain Wentz’ problems, getting testy with reporters when asked.

“Obviously we’re going through a little tough stretch right now with the division,” Judge told reporters in New York.

That “little tough stretch,” though, extends back to last season. At one point, the NFC East was on pace to finish with the worst winning percentage in NFL history, a record set by the 2008 NFC West (22-42, .343). The division avoided breaking the record as the Eagles’ 9-7 record lifted it from the bottom, giving the four teams a 24-40 (.375) record.

The division looks like it could make another run at the all-time mark this year.


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