- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
It hasn’t even been two years since the NFC East was the laughingstock of the NFL. During the final game of the 2020 regular season, a fading 4-10-1 Philadelphia team benched quarterback Jalen Hurts in the middle of a game in which he had a 25.4 passer rating against 6-9 Washington, which was guaranteed a playoff spot with a victory. His replacement, Nate Sudfeld, played poorly enough for neutrals to complain the Eagles were throwing a game on national television. An indignant 6-10 Giants team took to Twitter to complain; Sudfeld threw for 32 yards on 12 attempts and the Eagles bowed out, handing Washington the division title.
This was the bottom of the barrel. A sub-.500 Washington team made it to the playoffs. The Eagles were about to fire coach Doug Pederson and then trade quarterback Carson Wentz, just three seasons after they won a Super Bowl. The Giants were being run by the less-than-enthusing duo of coach Joe Judge and general manager Dave Gettleman and had sunk millions of dollars into mediocrity. The Cowboys, fielding the league’s fifth-worst scoring defense, were irrelevant after losing quarterback Dak Prescott to a brutal ankle injury in Week 5.
Now, everything has changed. The NFC East is the only division with three four-win teams. Even with Washington’s 1-4 mark dragging down the group, its 14-6 combined record is best in the league. Likewise, the division’s 11-3 mark outside the NFC East is No. 1, including three road victories Sunday.
The Commanders came within 2 yards of a Week 5 NFC East sweep, only for Wentz to attempt to throw interceptions on first and second down before finally succeeding on third-and-goal against the Titans. At 1-4, they can’t be included in the story of the East’s resurgence. With the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants now a combined 13-2, the hopeless teams of the 2020 NFC East can all be considered favorites to play postseason football.
How did these three teams get here? Are they liable to keep this up? And what does that tell us about the teams currently floundering in other divisions? Let’s look at what happened to each of them Sunday, starting with the upset of the day in London:
New York Giants (4-1)
Confidence matters. For all the numbers I can provide, for all the data points I can offer, for all the items on film that pop up, the biggest difference between the 2021 Giants under Judge and the 2022 Giants under Brian Daboll is confidence. That team was so afraid of making mistakes it stumbled into and through failures, with the decision to have Jake Fromm quarterback sneak on third-and-long as the most famous example. Of course, it still made plenty of mistakes anyway.
This coaching staff empowers and believes in its players, and even if it can’t count on those decisions going right, that confidence bleeds through into their play. Remember Week 1, when Daboll sent Saquon Barkley out for a 2-point conversion to try to win the game against the top-seeded Titans on the road. The playcall was a mess — Barkley faced a free defender in the backfield — but the star running back made magic happen to get into the end zone, and the Giants faded a last-second miss from Tennessee kicker Randy Bullock to get their first win of the season.
On Sunday against the Packers, it was Don Martindale’s turn to place confidence in his defense. He joined the Giants after four seasons as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, a tenure that ended with a patchwork secondary getting carved up behind his many blitz packages. The Giants also were without their top two pass-rushers in Azeez Ojulari and Leonard Williams, and then lost top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson in the second quarter.
At halftime, Martindale’s charges had allowed 20 points on five drives. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was carving them up, starting 18-of-24 for 147 yards and two touchdowns, with almost all of his throws coming on quick game and run-pass options. The Packers were methodically marching their way down the field, and New York seemed to have little say in the matter.
In the second half, Martindale generally took away the shorter stuff and dared Rodgers to beat him deep. That’s a risk most defenses simply aren’t willing to take against a reigning back-to-back MVP. It worked. Rodgers’ average pass distance went from 4.2 air yards in the first half to 12.4 air yards in the second half. After the break, he went 7-of-15 for 75 yards with a minus-14% completion percentage over expectation (CPOE). Martindale’s injury-hit defense held Green Bay’s offense scoreless, with its only points coming from an intentional safety with 11 seconds left.
The most notable example here came on the game’s final play. Martindale pushed eight men up on the line of scrimmage, declaring he would play the most important snap of the game in Cover 0 (no safety help in the middle of the field), then sent the house. The Packers called an RPO and Rodgers indicated before the snap he would throw an out to Allen Lazard, something two Giants signaled immediately afterward. Running free off the edge, safety Xavier McKinney wasn’t able to get home to hit Rodgers, but he was able to jump and tip the ball away, ending Green Bay’s last meaningful possession of the contest.
Football isn’t as simple as having the guts to send a Cover 0 blitz. The 2019 Dolphins and 2020 Jets can tell you about what can go wrong when you rush eight in key situations. There will be moments in which the Giants get aggressive and look foolish, because that happens to every team. Compared to the timidity and self-fulfilling prophecies of the 2021 team, though, they look invigorated. They believe.
One of the other reasons they look better than they did in 2020 or 2021 is the presence of a healthy, explosive Barkley, who has become the focal point of the offense for the first time since 2018. He’s averaging 1.7 rushing yards over expectation (RYOE) on his carries, the third-best mark in the league for backs with at least 50 attempts. It’s actually a better figure than his 2018 season, when he averaged 1.1 RYOE per carry, which was also third among backs with at least 10 carries per game.
Barkley’s ability as a home run hitter is back. He had a 40-yard run and a 41-yard catch Sunday, giving him as many 40-plus yard plays in one game as he had through the entire 2020 and 2021 seasons combined. For an offense that isn’t always efficient and often relies on something spectacular to get them out of trouble, his ability to make something out of nothing is essential.
I will admit I don’t see dramatic differences between the old Daniel Jones and the new one, but Sunday was the quarterback’s best performance of the season. He was an efficient 21-of-27 for 217 yards, though nearly 57% of his passing yardage came after the catch. Twelve of his 27 pass attempts (44.4%) produced first downs, the third-highest rate of any quarterback in Week 5. Before the Packers game, just 25.7% of his pass attempts had produced first downs, which ranked 30th out of the league’s 32 qualifying passers.
For everything I said about how the Giants are getting aggressive, they’re mostly asking Jones to be conservative and protect the football. His average pass is traveling just 5.7 yards in the air, the lowest mark in the league. He is still taking sacks at the league’s fourth-highest rate, but he’s done a good job of holding onto the ball. Through five games, he has two interceptions and — shockingly — just one fumble. He had never gone four games without fumbling before doing so over these last four.
The early returns on the new brain trust of Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen are promising, although five weeks also doesn’t tell us much of anything. Josh McDaniels started 5-0 with the Broncos in 2009. The Cardinals were 5-0 at this time last season. I’m optimistic about Daboll squeezing the most out of the offensive pieces he has left — and Schoen has approached this year with a rational view toward building for the future — but it’s still too early to draw long-term conclusions about their chances of succeeding.
We see desperate teams seemingly move in cycles as they go from successful organization to organization in the hopes of hiring the right coach and general manager. For so many years, it was going after the Patriots. After Sean McVay’s success with the Rams, the Bengals, Vikings and others raided Los Angeles’ cabinet. Others have gone for Kyle Shanahan’s staff in San Francisco, including the Packers and Jets.
Daboll and Schoen were the first to be nabbed from Buffalo’s staff under Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, and that could turn out to be a stroke of genius for the Giants. I’m not sure we know very much about which coaches (or GMs) to hire, but I also wonder whether it makes sense to be the first team hiring assistants from a hot organization as opposed to getting the second-, third- or fourth-best people in the building.
With the Giants, I’m now reminded of the 2017 Bills and how they accidentally made it to the playoffs. With McDermott taking over as coach, Buffalo began the process of gutting the prior regime’s roster. The only piece left within a few years would be edge rusher Shaq Lawson. In midseason, despite a 4-2 start, the Bills traded expensive defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars, sacrificing a short-term piece for draft capital and a cleaner cap in the years to come.
The Bills won despite themselves. At 5-4, they benched quarterback Tyrod Taylor for Nathan Peterman, but after Peterman’s disastrous start against the Chargers, McDermott had no choice but to insert Taylor back into the lineup. He won four of his final six games to push the Bills into the postseason. After the year, they let Taylor leave, churned more of the roster and traded up for Josh Allen in the 2018 draft.
With the Giants now favored to make it to the postseason, I wonder how they would handle their own accidental playoff berth in what was supposed to be a year of rebuilding and eating their salary-cap vegetables. Barkley and Jones are both free agents after the season with no obvious replacements on the roster. The team could trade Williams when he returns to health, although it would deprive Martindale of a useful defensive lineman.
The Giants are further away from competing consistently at the highest level than their record would suggest, although they’ve now beaten the top seeds in both conferences from a year ago. Like those 2017 Bills, even if they don’t make a deep run into the postseason (or come up short altogether), they’re establishing positive elements within their culture that should stick throughout their rebuild.
Dallas Cowboys (4-1)
When the 2020 Cowboys lost Prescott for the season in Week 5, they were forced to turn to quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert for the remainder of the year. They went 4-7. This season, with Prescott sidelined by a thumb injury since Week 1, they instead turned to 28-year-old Cooper Rush, whose only career start came last season. With Sunday’s win over the Rams, Rush has now won each of his first four starts, matching what those backups did in 2020 over 11 games.
Even Rush admits the Cowboys are winning games with their defense, and Sunday was no exception. On a day in which he threw for just 102 yards and four first downs on 19 dropbacks, the defense produced yet another stifling display. Edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence took a Matthew Stafford strip sack to the house for a first-quarter touchdown, one of three takeaways on the day. Dallas sacked the quarterback five times and knocked him down on 11 occasions, with hybrid defender Micah Parsons leading the way.
The biggest difference between the 2020 Cowboys and the 2022 edition is on the defensive side of the ball. Mike McCarthy’s first choice as a defensive coordinator hire was Mike Nolan, and the former 49ers coach simply wasn’t able to coax a competent defense out of his players. Those Cowboys were sloppy, to put it mildly. I’m not sure I can think of an NFL defense that gave up more big plays because of gap integrity issues than Dallas in 2020.
Those Cowboys gave up a league-high five plays of 60 yards or more. These Cowboys had not given up one such play all season before Sunday, when Cooper Kupp took a pass and went 75 yards to the house. Coordinator Dan Quinn has built an excellent defense since taking over for Nolan, and just as the Bills were lucky Daboll returned for one final season with the team in 2021, the Cowboys have to be thrilled that Quinn is back after attracting head-coaching attention in January.
Most of those Cowboys aren’t around anymore. Nine of the 15 defenders who played at least 50% of the defensive snaps in 2020 aren’t on the roster. Dallas undoubtedly regrets losing cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who has morphed into a superstar with Cincinnati, but they’re better in most places. Trevon Diggs, one of the few players who started on both teams, has grown from an inconsistent rookie into one of the league’s most exciting corners.
The Cowboys added Parsons in Round 1 a year ago, and his incredible success might be a reminder that adding transcendent players, even if they’re not at essential positions, can transform a defense. Parsons was drafted as an off-ball linebacker with the possibility of contributing to packages as an edge rusher, but I don’t think anybody expected him to be the sort of difference-maker we’ve seen so far. He has 19 sacks over the past two seasons, including six this season, which is tied for most in the league.
The Cowboys traded down within the division with the Eagles and netted an extra third-rounder in the process, which is a reminder that teams can make that most forbidden of moves and still win comfortably. The Eagles are undoubtedly happy with wide receiver DeVonta Smith at No. 10, and Chauncey Golston hasn’t done much as Dallas’ additional third-round pick, but Parsons might be one of the league’s best two or three defensive players. On Sunday, we saw him swarm Los Angeles for two sacks and create opportunities for others when the Rams slid their protection toward Parsons.
In 2020, the Cowboys were the league’s seventh-worst defense by expected points added (EPA) per play. Through five games in 2022, they’re the league’s fifth-best defense by EPA per snap. That difference dramatically reduces the burden on Rush, who hasn’t needed to win games as the focal point of the offense.
Coincidentally, Sunday was Rush’s worst game of the season. Across his first three starts, he hadn’t turned the ball over and had taken just two sacks, eliminating most negative plays from Dallas’ attack. The offense wasn’t exactly exciting, but when it has a great defense and doesn’t make any mistakes on offense, it’s going to be in good position to win games.
Owing to the presence of star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Sunday was messier. Rush was sacked three times and fumbled twice, although the Cowboys were lucky to fall on both. Dallas was 23rd in EPA per play on offense, meaning the only team with a less effective offense to win in Week 5 was the Colts, who were just about as bad on offense as the opposing Broncos were Thursday night.
This was a relatively quiet game for wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, but he has become the focal point of the Dallas offense since Prescott went down injured. Since the start of Week 2, Lamb has been targeted on 39.4% of his routes. The only player who has been targeted more often over that stretch has been Falcons wide receiver Drake London, who is playing on a Falcons team utterly devoid of playmakers.
As was the case with Parsons, the Lamb selection reminds us that taking the best player available is important, because what seems like a glut of talent might not look that way in a couple of years. The Cowboys drafted Lamb with No. 17 pick of the 2020 draft after he unexpectedly fell out of the top half of the first round. At the time, he seemed like a luxury pick for a team with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup at wideout, Blake Jarwin at tight end and Ezekiel Elliott at running back.
Two years later, Lamb is the only one of those five improving. Cooper is with the Browns, while Gallup is playing about 30 snaps per game as he recovers from a torn left ACL. Jarwin might never play again after suffering a hip injury, while replacement Dalton Schultz is struggling with a knee issue. Elliott has averaged minus -0.4 RYOE per carry and generated four first downs below expectation this season, but backup Tony Pollard is at 2.3 RYOE per carry while generating three first downs above expectation.
To be fair, even given the relatively mild load Rush has been forced to carry, he has exceeded expectations. His 64.9 QBR ranks eighth in the league, ahead of Hurts, Tom Brady and Joe Burrow. Rush actually has been let down a by a higher-than-expected drop rate (5.1%), and his average throw has traveled 8.1 yards in the air, which ranks 10th since Week 2. He has locked onto Lamb, but that’s not a bad thing, and it’s something Prescott might want to try to emulate when he returns to the lineup, either Sunday or in Week 7.
I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with the arguments that the Cowboys could, should or will stick with Rush as their starter. Prescott’s ceiling is much higher. Rush hasn’t been in a situation in which he has had to throw them back into the game during this stretch, and just by sheer randomness, there’s no way he could go the rest of the season without losing a fumble or throwing an interception. Plenty of middling quarterbacks can have stretches like this. Take 2013, when Josh McCown posted a 13-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio across five starts for the Bears in the middle of a career in which he otherwise posted a 85-to-81 ratio.
It’s clear the Cowboys are in a much better position to sustain a backup quarterback now than they were in 2020. They’re still a top-heavy team, but two years ago, they were both top-heavy and weighted strongly toward the offensive side of the ball. Now, after nailing the Diggs and Parsons draft picks, they’re more evenly balanced. We’ll see what happens in their trip to Philadelphia next weekend, but Cowboys fans facing down an 0-1 start and weeks with Rush at quarterback have to be thrilled about where they are now.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-0)
It’s almost impossible to conceive of how far down the Eagles were at the end of the 2020 season. Their roster felt bloated and ill-conceived. The collapse of the relationship between Pederson and Wentz seemingly had dragged the organization to the bottom of the division. Hurts had given them a spark in a win over the Saints, but he finished the year with a 33.8 QBR. It felt like they needed to start over in a rebuild which could include the coach, quarterback and general manager all moving on.
Instead, the Eagles fired Pederson and traded Wentz, but they kept general manager Howie Roseman. The longtime Philly executive was much maligned at the time, but he has restored his reputation with fans by getting most of his moves right over the past couple of seasons. What he has done should be no surprise; he has stuck to the core components of what both he and the organization have done over the past 25 years, and it’s built another winner. In a few short steps, those are:
Hire an offensive-minded coach. Andy Reid. Chip Kelly. Doug Pederson. Many teams typically choose their coach by going for something like the antithesis of the coach they previously had on board. When the Vikings fired defensive stalwart Mike Zimmer, they replaced him with a young, open-minded offensive coach in Kevin O’Connell. The Bears, meanwhile, swapped out Matt Nagy for a defensive coach in Matt Eberflus.
The Eagles have a track record of hiring younger head coaches with offensive backgrounds. Reid was 41 when the Eagles hired him away from the Packers in 1999. Kelly was slightly older at 50, but he was an offensive innovator at Oregon. Pederson was 48 when he arrived in Philadelphia, while his replacement, Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, turned 40 in his first season with the organization.
Pederson wasn’t regarded as a slam dunk hire. Two years later, he won a Super Bowl. Sirianni’s interview with the Eagles was just his second as a head-coaching candidate, and he wasn’t even the playcaller for the Colts under Frank Reich. After a curious debut news conference and a 2-5 start to his career, there were concerns they didn’t have the right guy.
Sirianni has gone 12-3 since. It’s worth noting how many players have improved during his time with the team, both in terms of young Eagles who were drafted by the organization and veterans who have been imported from other teams. Most notable among them is Hurts, who has become a much more consistent and reliable passer over the past year. Sirianni modified his offense to play to Hurts’ strengths as a runner during the second half of 2021, and the offense has shifted again at times in 2022 as it has dealt with injuries.
Build through the line of scrimmage. Injuries destroyed Philadelphia’s offensive line in 2020 and have slowed them down at times, but the Eagles continue to invest more on their offensive and defensive line than any other team. In 2021, they used a second-round pick on guard Landon Dickerson and a third-rounder on defensive tackle Milton Williams. This year, Roseman traded up ahead of the Ravens to grab mammoth Georgia tackle Jordan Davis, then relied on the scouting skills of legendary center Jason Kelce to grab his long-term replacement in second-rounder Cam Jurgens. The latter player saw his first snaps on offense Sunday, when Kelce missed a series with an injury.
Roseman also has addressed the positions in free agency. Javon Hargrave came in before that 2020 campaign, but he struggled in his debut season and has been much better since. In addition to bringing back Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett, Roseman made a big bet on edge rusher Haason Reddick, who signed a three-year, $45 million deal in March. The former Cardinals and Panthers defender had a sack in Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, taking him to 4.5 over his past three games.
Plenty of teams would see holes elsewhere on their roster and get away from their principles in the draft. Indeed, Roseman made this mistake at times during the fall of the Wentz era, going after disappointing wide receivers in the first two rounds. Teams often underestimate the opportunities that might open up after the draft, and when the Eagles still had money saved, they were able to fill a major need by signing James Bradberry to play cornerback across from Darius Slay. Bradberry has been excellent on a one-year, $7.3 million deal.
Don’t be afraid to make (and win) trades. Given how Wentz’s stock has fallen further since leaving Philadelphia, it’s difficult to say the deal to trade him to Indy has been nothing short of a success. The picks the Eagles acquired in that deal helped them move up for wideout DeVonta Smith in last year’s draft and trade for receiver A.J. Brown. They also still have a first-round pick in 2023 and a second-rounder in 2024 coming from the Saints, who might send Philadelphia a top-10 pick given their slow start to the season.
Roseman is one of the league’s most aggressive traders, and while nobody wins every trade, the Eagles have a sound track record. Moving down from No. 6 to No. 12 in the first round of the 2021 draft didn’t look great when they seemed to miss out on Jaylen Waddle or one of the top quarterbacks, but they ended up landing an impact receiver in Smith and turned their future first-rounder from the Dolphins into Davis.
When Urban Meyer decided he didn’t need a backup quarterback for the Jaguars last year, Roseman pounced and landed a valuable player for peanuts. With two years and $3.3 million left on his deal, Gardner Minshew’s status as an above-average backup meant he was worth about $8 million in surplus value. The Eagles landed Minshew for a sixth-round pick, and he won them a game in a spot start over the Jets by throwing for 242 yards with two touchdowns. The Eagles likely will net a better compensatory pick for Minshew after 2022 than the one they sent to the Jaguars in the first place. They’ll also get two years with an above-average backup for a fraction of what it would cost in free agency.
Roseman acquired safety/slot cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson from the Saints for two late-round picks in August, and he took a big swing on Brown in April, sending a first-rounder to the Titans for the right to pay Brown a market-value deal. All of those trades look like good decisions at the moment, although Gardner-Johnson was juked on an incredible cut by Marquise Brown on the Arizona wideout’s touchdown
It’s difficult to not contrast the Eagles with the team they were playing Sunday. The Cardinals don’t invest much in their offensive or defensive lines. They don’t run their cap as efficiently, spend money on running backs, and they have used two recent first-round picks on off-ball linebackers, a position the Eagles generally treat as one of the least important in football. It seems easy to point to Philadelphia as an example of how to build a team the right way, while the struggling Cardinals are a blueprint for what not to do.
And yet, a year ago, the two teams would have been in different roles. The Cardinals were 5-0 and riding high in what looked to be the league’s best division. The Eagles were 2-3 and about to lose two straight. They seemed years away from getting back into playoff contention. By the end of the season, both teams were in the postseason. Now the Eagles are the only undefeated team in football, while the Cardinals look set to struggle for a playoff berth in a middling NFC West.
The story here, instead, might be to take a longer view of team-building and decision-making. Roseman has gone from being regarded as a genius in 2017 to a disaster in 2020 and back again two years later. Chances are he has been the same guy with the same level of ability the entire time, only producing different results.
Things change quickly in the NFL, and someone like Hurts can go from looking like a temporary option to a franchise player quicker than you think. The three teams atop the NFC East likely can’t keep up this level of winning for the rest of the season, but what they’ve done is a reminder of how suddenly the league can flip.
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