Donovan McNabb and the Eagles won four out of five to make the postseason after McNabb’s controversial mid-season benching that some thought was the end of the “Five” Era in Philadelphia.
Then, Philadelphia won two playoff games including a win over the New York Giants, the NFC East winner and then-defending Super Bowl champions to get to their fifth NFC Championship in eight seasons. The soaring Eagles could not stop the even-higher flying Arizona Cardinals and were forced to watch the Super Bowl like the rest of the NFC East.
The offseason saw the Eagles offense infused with a few high profile free agents, some promising rookies and a Pro Bowler via a trade. On defense, the Eagles went younger with the departure of former All-Pro team leader Brian Dawkins and disgruntled cornerback Lito Sheppard.
With those offseason changes, will the Eagles be good enough to make another run at that elusive Super Bowl title? Let’s look at the teams that are standing in their way in the NFC East:
New York Giants (2008 Record: 12-4)
Key Additions: DT Rocky Bernard, LB Michael Boley, S C.C. Brown, DT Chris Canty
Key Losses: WR Plaxico Burress, WR Amani Toomer, RB Derrick Ward
The Giants should be Philadelphia’s toughest competition and this team is only one year removed from the Super Bowl. New defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan replaces Steve Spagnuolo who left to helm the St. Louis Rams and the offense lost three players— Burress, Toomer and Ward—who racked up more than half of the team’s offensive yards.
How will the defense run under Sheridan who has never been a coordinator in his nearly 30 years of experience as a coach?
That can’t be determined yet but New York added three free agent starters in Bernard and Canty (at defensive tackle) and Boley (at outside linebacker) to help in the transition. They also get back defensive stud Osi Umenyiora who missed all of 2008 with a knee injury. Plus, they added depth in the secondary with the signing of Brown.
There were no free agent additions on the offensive side to replace Burress, Toomer or Ward. They instead will rely on some younger players to step up and contribute in their absence.
Power rusher Brandon Jacobs is likely to miss his usual handful of games and 1,000-yard rusher Ward is not there to back him up. Elusive Ahmad Bradshaw has shown flashes but will he be as effective as Ward?
While Eli Manning should continue to be well protected, who does he throw to now that two of his favorite targets are gone?
Steve Smith should be his favorite target and Domenik Hixon might make up the slack for some of Burress' and Toomer’s 83 receptions in ’08. But the rest falls on the shoulders of second-year wideout Mario Manningham and ’09 first round choice Hakeem Nicks.
Why The Giants Are Better Than The Eagles: The G-Men are flooded with defensive talent. Without Umenyiora and the free agent additions, they were a force to be reckoned with. The Giants' defense ranked fifth in points allowed last year and are improved, so that should overcome their steps backward on offense. If the Giants taught us anything during their run to a Super Bowl, it’s don’t underestimate Eli Manning.
Why They Are Not: Spagnuolo was an excellent coordinator, Sheridan is an unknown. This Giants team obviously struggled without Plaxico and it looked like the Giants and Eagles more than symbolically passed each other in the Eagles’ divisional Playoff win.
Dallas Cowboys (2008 Record: 9-7)
Key Additions: LB Keith Brooking, QB Jon Kitna, DE Igor Olshansky, S Gerald Sensabaugh
Key Losses: DE Chris Canty, WR Terrell Owens, LB Zach Thomas
TO is gone and so is the excuse if this team continues to split apart at the seams.
Owner Jerry Jones is not known for his patience so another disappointing year might earn head coach Wade Phillips a pink slip in Dallas. In the final year of his contract, it’s doubtful Phillips has a lot of wiggle room after he failed to make the playoffs with a team many felt were destined for the Super Bowl.
On the offensive side, the team is without Terrell Owens who played a big role as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Tony Romo will not have Owens available which many see as a good thing because of his off-the-field distractions. Romo will instead rely on tight end Jason Witten and look for mid-season acquisition Roy Williams to pick up some of the slack.
The typically pass-happy Cowboys might shift some more of their play calling toward the running game where they have three solid runners in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
Linebacker DeMarcus Ware led the NFL in sacks with 20 last year and nose tackle Jay Ratliff was a Pro Bowl selection but their defense ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in points allowed.
Too old Zach Thomas moved on and was replaced by not much younger Brooking at inside linebacker while Olshansky and Sensabaugh moved to the front of the depth chart at their respective positions upon signing with the Cowboys.
Why The Cowboys Are Better Than The Eagles: The Cowboys are 27-14 (including the postseason) with Tony Romo as their starting quarterback and they addressed some of their defensive problems through free agency. Plus, the TO and Pacman demons have been exorcised. Addition by subtraction, perhaps?
Why They Are Not: Romo’s impressive starting record is not that impressive after December 1 where he is 5-10. That includes an embarrassing loss on the final game of the ’08 season that sent ripple effects through the organization. Plus, TO’s departure is not something franchises bounce back from in their first year without the controversy magnet. Ask the Eagles and 49ers.
Washington Redskins (8-8)
Key Additions: G Derrick Dockery, DT Albert Haynesworth, P Hunter Smith
Key Losses: DE Demetric Evans, CB Shawn Springs, DE Jason Taylor, LB Marcus Washington
Thanks to a 6-2 start, the Jim Zorn-Jason Campbell Era exploded onto the NFL scene. By the end of Week 17, the team was 8-8, out of the playoffs and impatient owner Daniel Snyder was looking to keep true to his track record of making drastic changes.
They tried, too.
Despite Campbell’s half-season of success, the offseason showed the lack of confidence the franchise has in their quarterback. First, they tried to trade for Jay Cutler and then eyed USC quarterback Mark Sanchez in the draft.
Cutler ended up in Chicago, the Jets landed Sanchez with the fifth pick and Campbell now enters the final year of his contract as the Redskins starting quarterback.
Campbell isn’t the only one in the pressure cooker as head coach Zorn enters ’09 with more than a few high profile head coaches out of work and Snyder already proving he has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to head coaches.
Clinton Portis is there to help take some pressure off of Campbell since their aging offensive line is likely to not be as helpful. Santana Moss can be lethal to secondaries and Antwaan Randle-El has big play capability, even if his quarterback isn’t known for that. Chris Cooley should continue to be Campbell’s security blanket at tight end.
Their defense should continue to shine which should keep their offense in games. The addition of All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth should help them be even better. Jason Taylor and Shawn Springs are both gone but Taylor was a bust and Springs was past his prime.
Why The Redskins Are Better Than The Eagles: To be fair, the Redskins are not. However, they do draw the favorable schedule in the NFC East which includes the Lions (0-16 in 2008) and Rams (2-14 in 2008). The Redskins might be right about Campbell not being the future, but he also does a good job of keeping them in games which should keep the Redskins competitive.
Why They Are Not: It’s likely the Redskins are looking toward 2010 and life without Campbell (and maybe Zorn). This team is not the 6-2 bunch that shocked everyone last year in the first half but not the 2-6 crew that struggled in the second half. However, 8-8 seems about right for this weak offense and solid defense.
THE NFC EAST OUTLOOK
Put the Eagles and Giants on a different level than the Cowboys and Redskins who both might need to take a few steps backward before moving forward. The Giants were better for 90 percent of the season last year but these two teams were equals by the time they met in the NFL Playoffs.
The Eagles win in that NFC division playoff vaulted them past the Giants and their successful offseason kept them there.
No one in the East is a pushover. There’s still a chance of a game-changing injury, trade or free agent signing that could shake the NFC East at its foundation.
Barring that, all four teams are playoff contenders but the Eagles did enough to put their name at the top of the list with the Giants a very close second. If one of these two teams slip, the Cowboys are more likely to threaten than the Redskins and expect the NFC East to put two teams into the playoffs.