- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2022

The National Football League is a sport of haves and have-nots. 

The teams that have an elite quarterback are contenders, and those who don’t, for the most part, aren’t. 

That dichotomy is where the NFC East finds itself this year. Three of the teams have question marks at quarterback — unclear whether their signal caller can progress as a passer (Jalen Hurts), be consistent enough to just make the playoffs (Carson Wentz) or be competent enough to be one of the 32 players worthy of taking snaps under center on Sundays (Daniel Jones). 

And then there’s Dallas.

The Cowboys are the only team in the division with the peace of mind that its quarterback is the long-term answer at the position. Dak Prescott is far from flawless: He’s won just one playoff game in his career and is just two years removed from a serious injury. 

But he’s 53-32 as Dallas’ starter since 2016, and the Cowboys have never gone below .500 when he’s played a full season. Prescott is also coming off the best season of his career — 37 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions, 4,449 yards and a 68.8% completion rate — to lead the Cowboys to a 12-5 record and the NFC East title.

Unlike the other teams in the NFC East, the biggest concern on offense for the Cowboys is about what’s around Prescott, rather than Prescott himself. Wide receiver Amari Cooper was traded to the Browns in the offseason; running back Ezekiel Elliott is on the wrong side of 20; and the offensive line is without left tackle Tyron Smith (hamstring) until December. 

“I like where we are relative to our skill positions. Our challenge is in our offensive line,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on ESPN in August. “But the offensive talent has to step up.”

The defense is the biggest strength for Dallas entering the campaign. The unit still boasts NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, who had 13 sacks in 2021, and third-year cornerback Trevon Diggs, who picked off 11 passes last season.

Dallas is a slight favorite to win the NFC East at +140 on BetMGM — slightly ahead of Philadelphia (+150) and far ahead of Washington (+500) and New York (+750). 

However, the NFC East remains the most difficult division in the NFL to repeat as champion. The division hasn’t seen a repeat champion since 2004, when the Eagles won their fourth-straight crown. If history is any indication, then Philadelphia is the most likely team to usurp the Cowboys for the top spot this season.

The Eagles made a late-season push in 2021 to make the playoffs as a wild card team with a 9-8 record. But they were far from the prettiest team in football. 

Hurts, in his first full season as the team’s starter, threw just 16 touchdown passes (although he rushed for 10 scores) and his 87.2 quarterback rating was 10th worst among NFL starters. The run-heavy Eagles won just one game against a team with a winning record and went 0-7 vs. playoff squads. 

Philadelphia’s brass has expressed confidence in the former Alabama and Oklahoma standout, and they acquired star A.J. Brown from the Titans to bolster Hurts’ wide receiver corps. But Hurts still has to take a large step as a passer for the Eagles to realize their potential. 

“You can see the progression of him getting better throughout the year,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said in March. “He led us to the playoffs. Obviously we want to go further than that, and we’re really confident that Jalen’s a guy that can help us do that.”

The Eagles also made multiple significant investments in their defense, which finished 18th in points allowed in 2021 but struggled to get to the passer with the second-fewest sacks in the league. They signed outside linebacker Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million contract after he totaled 231/2 sacks the last two seasons. The team also drafted 6-foot-6, 336-pound defensive tackle Jordan Davis in the first round and traded for Saints defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson last week. 

While the Eagles are the most likely team to overtake the Cowboys, the NFC East team with the widest range of outcomes could be the New York Giants. 

After two putrid years under coach Joe Judge — in which the Giants were the second-lowest scoring team in the NFL — New York brought in a new regime to kick-start the offense. New head coach Brian Daboll, who is coming over from Buffalo after spearheading one of the best offenses in football the last two seasons, is now tasked with reviving Jones’ career. 

Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in 2019, has thrown just 45 touchdowns versus 29 interceptions in his 37 career starts. The Giants are 12-25 with Jones under center. 

But Daboll has experience working with a quarterback who many believe can’t be a consistent passer in the NFL, as Buffalo’s Josh Allen experienced his meteoric rise under Daboll’s system. 

“He’s got a really good mindset in terms of staying even-keeled,” Daboll told reporters about Jones. “I think he has a lot of good qualities that we look forward to working with and helping him develop.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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