Fall from grace

One doesn’t have to go back a full generation to recall a time when the NFC East was the league’s powerhouse division.

Almost an entire generation, but not quite.

In the 10-season stretch from Super Bowl XXI through Super Bowl XXX (essentially the 1986-95 campaigns), the division shared seven championships. In the 17 years since then, not counting this season, obviously, the NFC East has won two Super Bowl titles, both by the New York Giants in upset victories over New England. Over that period, just the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles have appeared in a title game. And New York is the lone NFC East representative in the Super Bowl in the past eight title games.

It has, to say the least, been quite a comedown.

“Yeah, (the division) is maybe down a little,” allowed venerable Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who has spent the past seven seasons in the NFC East. “But it still plays tough football. Games in the division are still unbelievable. I think it still means something, especially to the (NFC East) players.”

But maybe not so much to the rest of the league or to the fans.

The results of the weekend certainly reflected the division’s recent demise. The NFC East was shut out in the win column, with Dallas, the Giants, Eagles and Washington Redskins all losing. Outside of the Redskins, with coach Mike Shanahan heroically going for a game-winning two-point conversion at Atlanta, instead of taking the easy way out and ordering an extra point that would have sent the game to overtime, the division suffered all sorts of ignominy.

Chip KellyChip Kelly's Eagles lead the NFC East despite getting blown out at Minnesota 48-30 on Sunday.

Dallas squandered a 23-point halftime lead, blew a chance to pull into a tie for the division lead, saw one of its star players leave the field early and its coach publicly second-guess a $100 million quarterback. Division-leading Philadelphia was strafed by a Minnesota team that entered the game with three victories, a revolving door quarterback situation and a coach on the hot seat. The Giants were embarrassed at home, absorbing a shutout amidst Eli Manning’s five-interception outing.

Who’d have bet at the beginning of the season that, in Week 15, a losing effort by Redskins’ backup quarterback Kirk Cousins would have been the division’s high point? Or that Shanahan’s decision to eschew a tie – even though the call wasn’t all that difficult given Washington’s deplorable circumstances and the likelihood that the coach didn’t want to further prolong what’s already been a long year – would be a highlight by comparison to everything else that transpired?

But this is what it’s come to in the NFC East, once the division seemingly feared and revered at the same time, but now just a shadow of its former halcyon days. Asked on Monday morning to explain the decline, football executives both inside and outside of the NFC East offered several opinions, albeit none of them with any kind of consistency. There was the hackneyed “football is a cycle” rationale from a few. Others noted the poor quarterback play this year. A few leaned on the trite “every other division has caught up” mindset. A couple old veterans of the NFC East even argued that the division’s overall toughness evens things out for the quartet of NFC East franchises, which is baloney that hasn’t been valid for a while. The upshot of the conversations: As best put, the division simply isn’t very good collectively right now.

“It’s just not the old days,” lamented one former NFC East coach who still watches the division with a keen eye.

That’s for sure, as Sunday reminded, somewhat painfully.

From 2000-2009, the NFC East sent at least two teams to the playoffs in eight of the 10 seasons. In both 2006 and 2007, it had three postseason qualifiers. In the past three seasons, though, the division champion has been the lone qualifier for the Super Bowl tournament. The same will be true in 2013, but the NFC East champion might have just nine victories. Since the merger, the division champion had fewer than double-digit victories just once, in 2011. This will mark the third straight year in which the NFC East won’t have at least two 10-win teams.

One more telling stat: The four teams in the NFC East are an aggregate 14-24 against clubs outside the division.

As Sunday graphically portrayed, no matter the reasons posited, the division simply ain’t what it used to be.

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