The NFC East is regaining some of its mojo.
Yes, the division came down to a “play-in” game in Week 17 between the Giants and Cowboys last season, and the Giants parlayed a victory in that game into a Super Bowl run that mirrored their 2007 title.
But something was missing last season.
Although three teams finished at .500 or above, with the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles all battling for the division crown, the talent level was down. There was more strife than success across the division, and it took until December for the Giants to establish themselves as elite.
This has been the pre-eminent division in football the past decade. It has four high-profile teams that dominate the NFL news cycles, and there was plenty to talk about with the Eagles’ “Dream Team” disappointment, the Cowboys’ weekly ups and downs, the Redskins’ continued wallowing and the Giants’ late-season run. But, for the most part, it was a so-so season in the East on the field. The battles lacked their patented fire.
Now we’re getting a little bit of the edge back. Expect nothing short of a classic NFC East throwdown in 2012.
It already has kicked off with the contentious salary-cap fines for the Redskins ($36 million) and Cowboys ($10 million) this season and next, a move spearheaded by Giants owner and NFL management council executive committee/labor chairman John Mara, who arrived at this week's owners meeting with guns blazing.
Super Bowl afterglow? Forget that — he sounded like an angry man when discussing his division rivals’ perceived sleights against the league in the uncapped season of 2010. Their crime, Mara said at the owners meeting, was bypassing a gentlemen’s agreement not to manipulate the cap in order to gain unfair advantages by frontloading contracts.
With the media out of sight in a posh Florida hotel lobby, you can rest assured that there are some fiery conversations going on between Mara, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder — three of the more powerful men in football, backed up by their teams’ cohorts — about the stiff fines levied.
The offseason is well under way, and the tension already is high.
The Redskins and Cowboys very well might have a legitimate beef in their appeal of the fines, which I wrote about for this month’s print edition of Pro Football Weekly — available for purchase here through PFWstore.com — but that’s another argument.
What can’t be disputed is that the East is back in Beast Mode.
The fourth team, the Eagles, is lying a bit low. Understandably.
It was a rough year for the organization, fresh off its post-lockout spree to put together a title-worthy team in what Andy Reid and Co. viewed as a golden opportunity to strike for a title while the iron was hot.
It was a failure then, but the feeling now is that their more measured approach and another year with those talented players in the team’s system could lead to a real run this time around.
You can rightfully wonder if Michael Vick is a title-contending quarterback or whether the defense really will be that much better, but the subtle addition of DeMeco Ryans as the unit’s centerpiece might just be the glue the team needs.
And don’t forget about the Redskins, who have been busy collecting receiving help for their expected draft prize, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. He might have a similar effect on the 'Skins that Cam Newton did on the formerly dormant Panthers offense last season and help wake up a sleeping giant.
It’s a quarterback league, and few divisions are as loaded as the NFC East. Vick in Philly. Griffin in D.C. Eli Manning and his two titles, perhaps in the prime of what might be a Hall of Fame career, with the Giants. Tony Romo still has some juice left in Dallas.
I caught up with Romo a few weeks ago in Baltimore for the Ed Block Courage Awards, and he appeared confident and ready for the coming season. Marriage has grounded him quite a bit, he said, and he feels as if he can play football this fall untrammeled, as if he has nothing to prove to anyone. Romo always has been at his best when the focus has been elsewhere.
And though his Cowboys always will be front-page news, they have been pushed mostly aside by a wild offseason to date that has featured the Saints bounty program, Peyton Manning to the Broncos and Tim Tebow joining the Jets.
Still, when the season matters, expect the East to dominate.
The Giants, we assume, will remain a force. The Eagles really could realize their dream deferred and see the fruits of their labor bloom this season. The Redskins appear better. The Cowboys have been productive in free agency and figure to make more noise in the draft.
Those are four quality teams with no more than three playoff spots available to the division. We still don’t know the entire schedule yet, but it should be a wild ride — all the way from the Giants’ Week One season kickoff against the Cowboys that was announced Tuesday to the two head-to-head divisional games we are now promised in Week 17.
The tension created with the cap case between Mara and the Redskins and Cowboys is just Act One. They’ll carry that animosity into the season. It will give us more of a classic version of the East’s great battles.
Expect this division to rise once more.