The NFC East is historically bad in 2020: Can the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Washington just be decent?

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Monday, October 5, 2020

When the Eagles knocked away a Hail Mary attempt from third-string 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard to hold on for a 25-20 victory in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday night, they did more than win a game. At 1-2-1, the Eagles are now in first place in the NFC East, a division in which four teams seem to be conspiring to lose football games. Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson's decision in overtime of Week 3 to settle for a tie with the Bengals -- who were the NFL's worst team a year ago -- helped push the Eagles into first place after four weeks.

The victory did more than help the Eagles, though; it saved the division from an ignominious fate. After four games, the NFC East is a combined 3-12-1. Since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, there have been 344 divisional races. Philadelphia's tie saved the 2020 edition of the NFC East from being the worst division in modern league history through four games.

Instead, this edition of the NFC East is merely the second-worst division of the past 50 years, coming in one-half game ahead of the 1984 AFC Central, which went a combined 3-13. Since the league went to its eight-division, 32-team format in 2002, no division had failed to combine for at least four wins across the first four weeks of the season before the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Washington joined up to be wasted by the rest of the league.

Even those small triumphs are embarrassing in their own way. Washington's win came over the Eagles in Week 1 in the only case of NFC East-on-NFC East action this season. The Cowboys needed a miraculous comeback and a hypnotic onside kick to beat the Falcons in Week 2. The Eagles tied a team that had gone 3-23 in its past 26 games and then beat San Francisco, which is missing its starting quarterback and most of its defensive line.

Each of these teams has lost in its own unique way, and examining them closely might give us a better sense of both what has gone wrong and what their chances might be of turning things around. This is likely to be the last 16-game season in NFL history, which means it's also likely our last chance to see a team make the playoffs with seven wins. The race to .438 is on; let's break down the competitors before trying to pick a winner.

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Which team will win the NFC East?

Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1)

I took a close look at the Eagles after their 0-2 start, focusing on quarterbackCarson Wentz's struggles and how the Rams were able to pick apart the weak links at linebacker and safety to lay waste to the weak underbelly of the Philadelphia defense.

We saw some of that on Sunday, with Wentz throwing his seventh interception and 49ers tight endGeorge Kittle catching all 15 of his targets for 183 yards and a touchdown. On the other hand, we also saw some signs of life from an Eagles team that looked to be just toiling on both sides of the football through three weeks. They were able to flip the script that had come within a play or two of dropping to 0-3 by reversing some key issues:

They won the turnover battle. Every crusty old football coach has been telling his players that they've needed to win the turnover battle since his gym shorts still had their liner. I'd love to surprise you with some research suggesting the turnover battle doesn't matter, but they're right. It helps to win the turnover battle, and over his time with the Eagles, Pederson's teams are no exception. Wentz & Co. have gone 24-3 when they've had a positive turnover margin, falling to 6-19-1 when they don't.

Through three games, the Eagles had lost the turnover battle three times while posting a league-worst margin of minus-7. Things didn't seem to be getting better in the first quarter when Wentz held the ball way too long before his pass was tipped in the air and picked, giving the former No. 2 overall pick his seventh interception of the season. Wentz now has seven interceptions in each of his last four campaigns, but after doing that in 13, 11 and 16 games from 2017 to '19, respectively, he has seven in four games this season.

The Eagles were able to force the 49ers to punt on their ensuing drive, though, and then won the game with what they did after finally forcing some takeaways. With the 49ers in the red zone late in the second quarter, a pressured Nick Mullens made an inexplicable decision to loft up a pass that was easily picked by Rodney McLeod, saving the Eagles at least three points.

Early in the fourth quarter, Mullens was strip-sacked by Cre'Von Leblanc and turned the ball over on his 42-yard line, setting up an Eagles touchdown. On his next snap, he threw an even more inexplicable interception to backup Eagles linebacker Alex Singleton, who took it to the house for a pick-six. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan immediately benched Mullens for Beathard, who closed out the game by going 14-of-19 passing for 138 yards and a touchdown, only to not run forward into an open end zone on the 2-point try. The 49ers then had to go for a touchdown on their final drive as opposed to a field goal, with their Hail Mary coming up short. The points the Eagles generated from going plus-2 on turnovers won them the game.

Pederson got aggressive again. Something else helped, too. The Eagles are one of the two or three most analytics-friendly organizations in the league, and when Pederson led the Eagles to an unexpected Super Bowl titlein the 2017 season, he was one of the NFL's most aggressive coaches. (Remember that the Philly Special came on a fourth-and-1 on a drive at the end of the first half of Super Bowl LII, when most coaches would have been happy to go into halftime as a huge underdog trailing only 15-12.)

Pederson has been inconsistently aggressive over the ensuing two-plus seasons, and when he chose to punt in overtime and ensure a tie against the Bengals, that lack of aggressiveness was called further into question. (For what it's worth, there weren't any good choices on the table for Pederson in that moment.) I'm not sure if he took those concerns to heart, but on Sunday, he coached like someone who was willing to take some risks to win a game.

After the Eagles went up 6-0 with a Wentz zone-read keeper, Pederson left his offense on the field to go for two. There's no strong analytical case here, but if you feel like you have a 2-point play that works, have a competitive advantage in short yardage over the competition or want to just try to maximize your opportunities to score points, there's nothing inherently wrong with going for two after an early touchdown. (Mike Tomlin's Steelers have done this a bunch in recent years.)

Pederson wouldn't be drawn on why he went for two after the game, but it worked; Wentz hit Zach Ertz with an easy pass for a 2-point conversion, putting the Eagles up 8-0. The 2-pointer math didn't come into play until late in the game, when the 49ers scored to bring things to 25-20. If the Eagles had attempted an extra point on their opening drive, the score would have played out the same and been 24-20, at which point the 49ers would have kicked an extra point to make it a 24-21 game. They then could have gone for a field goal on their final drive to force overtime. Instead, the 49ers were forced to go for a 2-pointer, and after they missed, they needed a touchdown on their final possession of the game. The early 2-pointer probably saved the Eagles from overtime.

Pederson had more up his sleeve. The Eagles went for it on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter and succeeded with a Wentz sneak. Neither of those would qualify as a surprise, and going for it on fourth-and-1 isn't as contrarian as it once was, but his choice in the fourth quarter was more controversial. Facing a fourth-and-4 from the San Francisco 36-yard line with 8:36 to go in the game, he passed up a 54-yard field goal and left his offense on the field, with Wentz finding rookie John Hightower on a slant for a first down. Most coaches wouldn't turn down a chance to tie the score, but four plays later, Wentz hit a streaking Travis Fulgham up the sideline for a 42-yard touchdown on second-and-18, giving the Eagles a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Wentz looked better. While his interception came on a play in which he continued to interminably scramble before getting the ball out too late, he looked better throughout Sunday's game. On the whole, he was more decisive with his passes and had more consistent footwork, leading to improved accuracy. The scrambling did occasionally help, as Wentz was able to move around long enough on a second-and-22 to give two 49ers penalties a chance to occur, then converted a second-and-18 with a perfect pass to Fulgham for a touchdown. He still isn't playing at the level Eagles fans might have hoped, but he posted an 80.4 QBR in the second half while leading Philadelphia to its first win.

Part of that QBR comes from Wentz's scrambling, and as The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia noted on Twitter, he leads the league in scrambling expected points added over the past two weeks. He has run for 102 yards, two touchdowns and 10 first downs over the past two games, and while it might not sound like a compliment, the guy Wentz has reminded me of over that time frame is a more refined Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitz is never going to be the prettiest quarterback, and there are games in which he looks like an absolute mess, but he's always capable of dragging his team back into games by scrambling for first downs and touchdowns if you don't account for him as a runner. Wentz's scrambles have helped the Eagles to a win and a tie over the past two weeks.

The big concern for the Eagles, as it was two weeks ago, is injuries. Things have gotten worse, sadly. On offense, Philly is down its top three wide receivers in DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Jalen Reagor and a starting tight end in Dallas Goedert. Left tackle Jason Peters hit injured reserve over the weekend, leaving the Eagles with just two starting linemen in center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson. For stretches on Sunday, they were down to one, as Johnson was hobbled by an ankle injury and only played 59.3% of the offensive snaps. DefendersFletcher Cox and Darius Slay also went down at times, although both returned to the game. Wentz himself is an injury risk playing behind an inexperienced, overmatched offensive line; the Eagles are lucky that the 49ers are similarly banged up and came into Sunday's game without Nick Bosa, Dee Ford or Solomon Thomas.

I strongly suspect that the Eagles won't have much sympathy for another team dealing with injuries, and they shouldn't. This wasn't the prettiest victory, but they found a way. Unheralded defensive linemen such as Josh Sweat and Genard Avery tormented San Francisco's tackles, with Trent Williams in particular having an awful day. Singleton, a special-teamer who spent three years with the Calgary Stampeders, was in the right place at the right time for a pick-six. Fulgham was promoted to the active roster Saturday and caught a rainbow from Wentz for the game-winning score. In 2017, the Eagles seemed to get unexpected production from players on the bottom of their roster. Those last few spots had been a disaster through three weeks, but on Sunday, some of the unknowns came through and helped get the Eagles a critical win.

Dallas Cowboys (1-3)

I was going to finish the Eagles section by suggesting that they could use an emotional win to help turn around their season, but then I realized that I was going to follow up by talking about the Cowboys. They were able to parlay a miraculous comeback and an onside kick into a dramatic victory over the Falcons in Week 2, and over the ensuing two weeks, they've ... shown the exact same weaknesses we saw against the Rams and Falcons. I'm not sure we've ever seen a team like the 2020 Cowboys, and I'm not sure we're better off for discovering this flawed of a football team.

To start with the obvious: Dak Prescott's passing numbers are obscene. With the Cowboys often trailing and playing fast, Prescott has racked up unbelievable numbers through the first month of the season. After going 41-of-58 for 502 yards on Sunday, he became the first player in league history to rack up 450 passing yards or more in three consecutive games. He now has 1,690 passing yards through four games, the most in NFL history by a considerable margin. The prior record-holder for most passing yards over the first four games of the year was Kurt Warner during the 2000 season with the Rams, when the future Hall of Famer racked up 1,557 yards, 133 short of Prescott's total.

ESPN Daily podcast: Barnwell joins the show to talk about the NFC East, NFL's COVID-19 outbreak and more.

There's a perception that lofty passing totals amount to little more than empty calories, but that's outdated. If you look at the other players in the top 20 for most passing yards through four weeks, they went a combined 51-23-2 over their respective four-game stretches. Six of them would go onto the Super Bowl. Prescott has spent much of the time playing from behind, but when you have a quarterback producing at this sort of level, it typically results in victories.

Instead, the Cowboys are 1-3. The offense deserves some of the blame; as good as it has been for stretches, Mike McCarthy's attack has unquestionably been sloppy. The Cowboys have fumbled seven times this season, and while they've been unlucky to lose six of those to the opposing defense, they've been cashed in for five touchdowns and a field goal. That includes two first-half fumbles in Sunday's 49-38 loss to Cleveland, with the Browns turning fumbles from Prescott and running backEzekiel Elliott into touchdowns. Prescott also was lucky to get away with just one interception late in the contest, as the Browns could have picked him off two more times with better hands. The offensive line has struggled without tacklesLa'el Collins and (for a stretch) Tyron Smith; the Seahawks were able to hold onto their late lead by getting pressure on Prescott twice in a row with three-man rushes on the final drive in Week 3.

With that being said, if you're blaming Prescott and the offense for the problems in Dallas, you're not being realistic. We can use ESPN's win probability added (WPA) model as a way to parse out how much of its struggles can be blamed on the offense and the defense. The Dallas offense ranks 17th in WPA; it's clear that it hasn't been as impactful or impressive as its raw numbers indicate, but Prescott & Co. have done enough to keep the Cowboys afloat through four weeks.

The Dallas defense, on the other hand, ranks last in the league in WPA. Mike Nolan's defense was 17th in DVOA heading into Sunday, but that mark will fall. Cleveland was able to rack up 33 first downs in Week 4, and while Baker Mayfieldthrew for only 165 yards on 30 attempts, the Browns' rushing attack sliced up the Dallas defense. Despite losing running backNick Chubb to an injury in the first half, the Browns ran the ball 40 times for 307 yards and three touchdowns. It was a franchise record for the Cowboys, who had never before allowed an opposing team to hit 307 rushing yards across 917 games in the NFL.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith has come in for the most criticism after the game, and maybe that's no surprise. Smith is the most visible member of the run defense, and after signing the former Notre Dame starter to a six-year, $68.4 million extension last year, the Cowboys clearly valued Smith as one of the best players at his position in football. It was a big ask; Smith has an incredible story, and it's wonderful to see him get paid, but he was a liability in 2018 before playing better in 2019. With Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee both injured, Smith has been expected to hold the fort, and he hasn't been able to. On Sunday, he committed a foolish face mask penalty on first-and-20 to hand the Browns a new set of downs and help set up a Cleveland touchdown.

In terms of the run issues, though, Dallas' problems extended way beyond Smith. Some of the problems were schematic and/or mental mistakes. The defense rotated its linebackers in response to motion just before a snap and Smith didn't fill the A-gap, which Chubb cut through for a 21-yard run. Dallas tried to scrape-exchange a counter play with a cornerback blitzing off the edge to serve as the force player, but they forgot the exchange part of the concept and left D'Ernest Johnson an easy path for a 28-yard gain.

Otherwise, there were plenty of problems with players who are much less famous than Smith. Safety Donovan Wilson, who took the place of benched starter Darian Thompson, missed a number of tackle attempts, including one on a Kareem Hunt touchdown run. Joe Thomas, filling in for Vander Esch and Lee, was too easily caught in trash around the line of scrimmage. Guys such asEverson Griffen and Xavier Woods had opportunities to make plays at or around the line of scrimmage, only for the Browns' backs to run right by them for first downs.

The 50-yard touchdown run by Odell Beckham Jr. sealed the game and summed up the Cowboys' season. For the second time in the game, the Browns ran a reverse and Beckham went up against Cowboys edge defender Aldon Smith, who needed to either make the play himself or force Beckham to slow down and give Smith time to get help. Instead, Beckham just ran right by Smith. Thomas, flying across the field, should have been able to make a tackle for a modest gain, only for Beckham to slow down and let Thomas fly out of bounds like a low-level villain in a martial arts movie. Wilson then got off his block but whiffed on his diving tackle attempt, allowing Beckham to run upfield for his third touchdown of the game.

After the game, we saw more criticism of Nolan and his defense, especially in contrast to what was perceived to be a simpler scheme under former coordinator Rod Marinelli. Nolan, who was once the 49ers' head coach, was a curious hire as a guy who hasn't been a coordinator since his time with the Falcons from 2012 to '14. The idea of installing a more complex scheme and not reducing things to "one call," as Mike McCarthy suggested after the game, probably wasn't a good idea in the context of an offseason where minicamps were canceled and practice time was at a premium. Throw in the injuries and it's clear that the Cowboys' players are learning on the job while their coaches figure out what they're actually good at doing.

There's no easy solution. Firing Nolan and promoting special assistant George Edwards could be on the table, but the Cowboys likely aren't overhauling their scheme overnight. Legendary coordinator and former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips is unemployed and tweeting about it, but while the 73-year-old Philips has turned around defenses quickly in the past, those improvements have involved an offseason to work. Installing a new defense in the middle of the season is unrealistic and would create more blown assignments.

On the personnel side, free agent Earl Thomas isn't going to fix what ails the Cowboys. Safety has been a problem, but they need more help in their front seven and at cornerback before they address safety. It's also become clear that Thomas doesn't have a market around the league, as he has visited only one team since he was released by Baltimore and didn't even get to work out. The Cowboys would probably be willing to take a shot on Thomas if they could pay him the minimum without any guarantees, but he is going to want a deal with guaranteed money.

If the Cowboys are going to address anything with their defense, it might be more realistic to go after someone like defensive tackles Damon Harrison or Marcell Dareus or a linebacker like Nigel Bradham. The defense should improve when Vander Esch and Lee return. Realistically, though, the goal should be to push the defense toward competency and rely on the offense to win games. Right now, neither side is holding up its end of the bargain.

Washington Football Team (1-3)

I have less to say about the Washington Football Team and the Giants, in part because expectations were lower. Both teams are still in the division race, of course, with Ron Rivera's team just a half-game out of first place. Unless Washington gets to somehow play more than six games against the NFC East, its chances of contending seem slim.

If Washington was going to contend this season, its formula was going to look a lot like what we saw against the Eagles in Week 1. A deep, talented defensive line was going to overwhelm opposing offensive lines and create takeaway opportunities, helping out an inexperienced offense by handing it short fields. Washington sacked Carson Wentz eight times, and the defense created two short fields with takeaways, which the offense turned into touchdowns.

That formula has dried up, in part because the defensive line isn't as deep or talented. It lost wildly underrated lineman Matt Ioannidis to a season-ending torn biceps in Week 3, and he was joined on the sideline by rookie second overall pick Chase Young, who missed Week 4 with a groin injury. When you take away the stars up front, it's easier to attack the replacement-level players and inexperienced options at the second and third level of Jack del Rio's defense. On Sunday, the Ravens went after vulnerabilitiessuch as linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Troy Apke as they scored four touchdowns in a 31-17 win.

Washington did intercept two passes and turned the short fields into 10 of its 17 points on offense. Unfortunately, it brings its total of takeaways to three over the past three weeks. This formula also typically relies on the takeaways to create extra scoring opportunities, but in practice, it's serving as this team's only scoring opportunities.

Scott Turner's offense has started a league-high 10 drives in opposing territory this season and generated five touchdowns from those possessions. When drives start at or inside their own 30-yard line, though, quarterbackDwayne Haskins' group hasn't been able to move the ball. It has scored an average of just 0.7 points per possession on those opportunities, the worst mark in football. (The Giants are 30th and the Eagles are 31st, making for a beautiful NFC East bottom to the barrel here.) It has more giveaways (six) than touchdowns (four) on those drives so far.

Suggestions around Washington have implied that Haskins could be about to lose his job to Kyle Allen, whom Rivera acquired via trade after arriving in town from Carolina. By the numbers and on the tape, Haskins hasn't been pretty. His CPOE is 6.6% below expectation, the worst mark in the league for a quarterback with at least 100 pass attempts in 2020, and 22.9% of his pass attempts have been off-target, the third-worst mark in the league; only Matthew Stafford and the benched Mitchell Trubisky have been worse.

At the same time, though, what should we expect from Haskins? He has had to learn a new scheme under Turner with limited practice reps. His best offensive lineman, guard Brandon Scherff, is on injured reserve. His only NFL-caliber receiver is Terry McLaurin, who is less than 100% while playing through a thigh injury. With Kelvin Harmon out for the year and Steven Sims dealing with a toe injury, Washington has started journeyman wideout Dontrelle Inman, who himself suffered a wrist injury last week. Tight end Logan Thomas, a converted quarterback, is a good athlete who hasn't been a significant portion of the passing game at any of his prior stops. Antonio Gibson has been promising out of the backfield, but these weapons were ranked 32nd in the league this season.

I suspect we'll see Allen at some point during the season, and I hope that we do get to see live reps for Alex Smith, who has made an inspirational return from a broken leg. Given the injuries and the fact that Haskins has all of 10 pro starts, it seems a little early to even float the idea giving up on the 2019 first-rounder. While it's in the race, this is a year for Washington's new brain trust to evaluate, not compete.

New York Giants (0-4)

The only winless team in the worst division in football over the past 35 years. The worst team in football since the start of 2017 and the sixth worst since winning its last Super Bowl in the 2011 season. Years of bad drafts, free-agent Band-Aids and ill-advised coaching decisions have led the Giants to where they are in 2020, but they don't explain their entire story. It would be one thing if they were simply bad. What might be even worse, given what they've invested on offense over the past three years, is that they're boring.

Take Sunday's 17-9 loss to the Rams. The Giants ranked 18th in defensive DVOA heading into Week 4, but against a Rams team that had looked explosive over the prior two weeks, cornerbackJames Bradberry and the secondary did a really good job. Los Angeles scored 17 points on nine meaningful possessions, and after an early touchdown, coordinator Patrick Graham's defense bunkered down and kept the Rams quiet before Cooper Kupp sealed things with a 55-yard touchdown. Teams that have allowed exactly 17 points in a game are 238-80 (.723) over the past decade. The only organization with a losing record in those games is, of course, the Giants. They're now 3-5.

For the second week in a row, they could not muster up a single touchdown, marking the first time they've gone consecutive weeks without an offensive touchdown since 1998. The Giants have three offensive touchdowns, the fewest in the league; the only other team that doesn't have at least seven offensive scores is the Jets, who might be the one team the Giants are embarrassed to be compared to right now.

The red zone has been a significant point of contention for them this season, and it might have cost them the game Sunday. They have 10 red zone trips, four of which came Sunday against the Rams. Those 10 trips have produced more drives with no scoring at all (three times) than touchdowns (two). Coordinator Jason Garrett's offense is averaging 2.9 points per red zone possession, the worst mark in football. On Sunday, those drives could generate only three field goals and a game-sealing interception.

I'm fond of writing about how red zone performance can be random from week to week and year to year, and it could very well apply here. Penalties in the red zone cost the Giants on Sunday. I also don't think the game has slowed down very much for quarterbackDaniel Jones in the way it has, say, for Josh Allen this season. Jones still seems as though he's processing at a slower rate than the NFL requires, which is why teams are able to create pressure against him in the pocket so easily, especially in the red zone. He has been pressured on 34.3% of his dropbacks this year, the sixth-highest rate in the league. They are also 30th in pass block win rate, so the offensive line isn't exactly holding up its end of the bargain, either.

It's true that the Giants miss running back Saquon Barkley, who was their get-out-of-jail-free card on checkdowns and screens and could make people miss in tight quarters. At the same time, he had 15 carries for 6 yards in his only healthy start before going down with a torn ACL in Week 2. The Giants actually ran the ball reasonably well against the Rams on Sunday, turning 25 carries into 136 yards and seven first downs.

Like Washington, you can give the new staff in New York some benefit of the doubt given the lack of practice time this offseason. Unlike Washington, though, 2020 was supposed to be a step forward for the Giants. Coach Joe Judge was installing a winning culture after his time with the Patriots. General manager Dave Gettleman had spent heavily in free agency to fix the perennial trouble spots on defense. Jones was supposed to take a step forward in Year 2. It's too early to judge, but the Giants don't look like much different from what we saw in 2019. If anything, this team is worse on offense.

Which team will win the NFC East?

In this four-team race, I'm going to throw out the Giants, who face the Cowboys in Week 5, and Washington. While the Eagles are a half-game ahead of the Cowboys, I'm concerned about their incredible injury rate, especially along the line of scrimmage. They were able to overcome a beaten-up 49ers team Sunday, but they get the Steelers and Ravens in the next two games. There's a chancetwo weeks from now that we're looking at them at 1-4-1.

Meanwhile, even given that the Cowboys can't stop anybody on defense, the presence of a potentially dominant offense is something nobody else in the division can offer on either side of the ball. The injuries are a concern here too, but they're not as banged-up as the Eagles, and Prescott has a better track record of staying healthy than Wentz. The Cowboys are sloppy, but they probably won't lose six of their next seven fumbles on offense in a four-week span. While their ceiling is way down from my preseason estimate, there's enough good here for the Cowboys to hit 8-8 or 9-7 and win the division. Given the degree of difficulty, it might be more accurate to project them as the last team standing.

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