The NFC East was more ‘NFC Least’ in 2020 - officially pro football’s worst division.
The Washington Football Team clinching the division with a 7-9 record showed just what a lamentable cast this was. A far cry from the late 80s and early 90s when Dallas, Washington and the New York Giants were winning Super Bowl after Super Bowl.
Now just getting to .500 will qualify as something of a success, and all four teams have been making major changes in a bid to get over the hump in 2021.
A playoff berth is there for the taking for anybody who can somehow fashion a winning season. OddsCritic looks back at what happened in 2020, and who is best placed to take a big leap forward come September.
The destination of the 2020 NFC East title hinged on one play at AT&T Stadium on Sunday October 11, 2020.
Dallas was in the third quarter of its divisional matchup with the Giants when quarterback Dak Prescott went down with the sort of injury which makes TV networks question whether they should show a replay.
The Cowboys would still prevail 37-34 that Sunday, but Prescott had left the game with what would be diagnosed as a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. He was done for the year.
From that moment on Dallas did not have its franchise QB to lead a high-powered offense, which was just about good enough to cancel out a historically bad defense.
It’s difficult to imagine the Cowboys not pulling out another couple of wins with Dak steering the ship the whole way. Instead, the season was a shambolic exercise in futility, which ended on 6-10.
The really big winner that October Sunday was not even present in the state of Texas - the Washington Football Team.
Washington had hired former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera in the offseason in a bid to clean up a once-great franchise which has been a laughing stock in two decades of ownership by Dan Snyder.
Despite having the biggest shortcoming in football, no franchise QB, Washington has assembled a strong supporting cast on offense and an excellent front seven defensively.
Well coached by Rivera, the team was able to claim a division title with the promise of better to come in 2021 and beyond.
The New York Giants would finish on 6-10 along with Dallas, a Week 17 win over the Cowboys hammering a final nail into their bitter rival’s playoff coffin.
For now the jury remains out on second-year quarterback Daniel Jones. There were flashes of brilliance but also moments that made you wonder if he really is the future in the Big Apple.
In Philadelphia meanwhile it was a painful season, which ended in the firing of head coach Doug Pederson after that ugly Week 17 ‘tank’ against Washington.
The gradual unravelling of Carson Wentz, and the passing of the torch to Jalen Hurts, was never going to be smooth. In the end it was decidedly bumpy and that Super Bowl win from early 2018 now feels like decades ago.
Those standings paint a pretty ugly picture for some of the most marketable franchises in football. Will things get any better in 2021? Let’s look at the evidence so far.
The Dallas Cowboys were expected to make a return to the big time after the departure of Jason Garrett and the arrival of Mike McCarthy as head coach in 2020.
Instead the year was a disaster. Dak went down, the defense was a study in ineptitude and McCarthy’s decision-making on gameday left much to be desired.
Blame COVID, blame Prescott’s injury, whatever - there will be no room for such excuses in 2021.
In theory the Cowboys go into the year in much better shape thanks to Dak returning, with a $160million four-year contract in his back pocket. He is being paid to be elite now.
Prescott’s once-vaunted offensive line was decimated in 2020. Tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are back from injury now and their health will be a big factor in how far Dallas goes in 2021.
As for that lamentable defense, McCarthy was forced to fire his defensive co-ordinator hire Mike Nolan just one season in. The replacement is a strong one - former Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn.
The Cowboys followed that move up by giving Quinn some weapons to work with - loading up on defense in a big way in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Eight players of 11 chosen came on the defensive side of the ball, including the first six. All led off by the consensus best linebacker in the draft, Micah Parsons of Penn State.
If Prescott is back to full health then the Dallas offense should be high-octane, with a stellar trio of wide receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Cee Dee Lamb.
Star running back Ezekiel Elliott meanwhile has much to prove. Is the downturn in his numbers in the last two years a sign of terminal decline? Or just a lack of conditioning? Either way, it’s time for him to prove that $90million contract extension in 2019 wasn’t a horrible mistake.
Summary: Dallas is a worthy favourite to win the division - it’s the only team which is truly set at the game’s most important position. 11/10 though is very short about a team which still has plenty of question marks around the defense. No great value there at this stage for punters.
There are two big ‘ifs’ here:
Assuming the answer to both is affirmative, Dallas should at least win the division and likely have some success in the post-season.
We’ll get the answers later this year, and as ever in Dallas, it will be box-office entertainment.
Washington is really close to being seriously good in many ways. In another, it is miles off.
To say the NFL is a quarterback-driven league would be the ultimate understatement. A great one can cover up a lot of weaknesses. A bad one will kill a season, a coaching staff and an entire front office.
WFT has four QBs on its depth chart right now - and none of them will likely be the long-term answer for the franchise. For now at least, it’s do what you can with what you have.
The likely starter is Ryan Fitzpatrick, the 38-year-old NFL nomad signed on a $10million one-year deal during the offseason. Keeping the seat warm until Rivera does settle on a long-term answer.
‘Fitzmagic’ is very much boom or bust, and he has real weapons in Washington. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin is an exciting talent, tight end Logan Thomas had a fine 2020 and the offseason signing of Curtis Samuel adds yet more depth in skill positions.
In the backfield meanwhile, Antonio Gibson was a hugely impressive rookie running back before a toe injury blunted his progress.
So there are reasons to be hopeful, but there’s also a reason Fitzpatrick is so often looking for a new team, and a reason he always finds one. It’s the hope that kills you.
Defensively, Washington will again be stellar up front, anchored by the sensationally talented Chase Young. The front seven will be further bolstered in 2021 by the addition of first-round draft pick Jamin Davis, a highly-touted linebacker from Kentucky.
Washington also moved to shore up its offensive line via the draft, taking Texas tackle Samuel Cosmi in Round 2. Rivera, like many good judges, believes you win up front in the NFL. Sound reasoning indeed.
Summary: We do not expect Washington to take a step back in 2021. The question is, how big a leap forward can it make?
Rivera is building a strong foundation for years to come in the nation’s capital, but he still lacks a franchise QB. And that, sadly, is the biggest question mark for any team.
If ‘Fitzmagic’ is boom in 2021, then Washington will contend for another division title. If he’s bust, then it’s likely to hover around .500 once again.
Right now 5/2 to win the division looks plenty short enough.
When the New York Giants selected Duke QB Daniel Jones in Round 1 of the 2019 draft the New York media and fanbase howled. They wanted a new signal caller, they just didn’t like the one they got and just as importantly where they got him (#6 overall).
Two years on, and there are still question marks about Jones. At times he’s shown flashes of real elite talent. At others, he’s been frustratingly inconsistent.
In 2020 he did show signs of protecting the ball better, but he also threw just 11 TD passes - 29th in the league. He was also just #19 in terms of passing yards.
Jones will have no excuses about his supporting cast in 2021, GM Dave Gettleman went out in the offseason and surrounded him with weapons to succeed.
The spending spree was headlined by the $72million four-year deal New York handed to Detroit wide receiver Kenny Golladay. If healthy (he played only five games in 2020), he immediately gives Jones a bona fide WR1 to go to war with.
Gettleman folllowed up in the draft by spending New York’s first pick on Florida WR Kadarius Toney, who adds another deep threat. Additional free-agent WR signings John Ross and Kelvin Benjamin are gambles, but ones with little financial cost attached.
If Jones and the Giants are finally able to make defenses think about defending the pass in 2021, it should also help an inconsistent running game.
RB Saquon Barkley, a generational talent taken #2 overall in 2018, went down in Week 2 of 2020 with a torn ACL, and will return with question marks. Not having to face eight-man fronts every down should help his recovery, and the Giants offense is way better with him in the lineup.
On the defensive side of the ball New York bolstered its secondary with the free-agent signing of Tennessee’s Adoree’ Jackson (3 years, $39million). The linebacking corps also got an upgrade with the choice of Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari in Round 2 of the draft.
The Giants already had a defense which is pushing for the top 10 overall in the league, with the trade with the Jets for Leonard Williams last year giving them a blue-chip piece to work with up front. Williams racked up 11.5 sacks in 2020.
It’s the secondary where the Giants need most improvement, and the acquisition of Jackson should help considerably there.
Summary: If there is a little value in the NFC East division betting right now, it might be the Giants.
Yes the team has question marks - notably around Jones - but which team in this division doesn’t?
The offseason changes should help the team take another step forward, and the supporting cast around Jones is night and day from the 2020 version.
If Daniel can indeed deliver (no excuses this time round) then the Giants could easily contend for a division title in 2021.
Philadelphia is the poster child right now for how fast things change in the National Football League (NFL also stands for ‘Not For Long’).
Just over a season ago, Carson Wentz had led an injury-riddled Philly offense to an NFC East title. Now, he’s out.
The Eagles spent a fortune in draft capital to trade up to #2 overall to get Wentz in 2016, and then rewarded him with a four-year contract worth $128million in 2019.
But the former North Dakota State signal caller regressed to such an extent in 2020, the front office deemed him damaged goods and shipped him and his contract out to Indanapolis.
Now this team belongs to 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts, who provides a tantalising dual threat under center.
Add to all that turmoil at the game’s most important position to the fact Philly has a new coaching staff in 2021, and it’s easy to see why this team could be anything.
New head coach Nick Sirianni had an inauspicious start to his tenure with a press conference which instantly became meme material in the City of Brotherly Love.
You’d like to think things can only get better for Sirianni, but Philly is a brutal media market and has perhaps the league’s most critical fanbase.
On the bright side, that final-game capitulation (tank if you want to call it that) against Washington did allow the Eagles to snag the #6 pick in the 2021 Draft.
After a trade (which nets the team an extra first-rounder in 2022) the Eagles eventually used its first pick to give Hurts a new toy in Albama’s Heisman Trophy-winning WR DeVonta Smith.
On the defensive side of the ball Philly still has the potential to rank in the top five in the league up front, but the secondary is a concern.
So yet again, it all comes back to offense - that’s what wins in the NFL in the 2020s. Specifically it comes back to Hurts. As he goes, the Eagles will go.
Summary: Right now we’re shocked the Eagles are the same odds as the Giants. So many questions - starting at the very top of the organisation.
The firing of Pederson and the hiring of Sirianni saw Philly come off looking disorganised and dysfunctional.
Talent is unquestionably in the building, but who knows if it will have the right culture and teaching to thrive. At this stage we wouldn’t be taking the 5/1.
Odds correct at 1115 BST (05/07/21)
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