The 2011 version of the NFC East is an interesting study in contrasting offseason philosophies. The lockout forced the hands of some and stalled others in their tracks, and each team followed a different path that was more or less been the catalyst for how they have started during the first quarter of the NFL season.
One team's offseason plan has led to unexpected success, and that team is the Washington Redskins.
How has this happened? Philadelphia was supposed to win the Super Bowl. Dallas assumed a rebound season was in the cards. New York figured it would contend with toughness and veteran experience. Washington was left for dead in the division cellar.
It seems as though the offseason approaches of the presumed contenders have not exactly come to fruition.
The Eagles used the strategy popularized by the Redskins over the last decade—buy star power and form an unstoppable team that will overwhelm the opposition with straight-up talent. This has (surprisingly or otherwise) resulted in a sloppy 1-4 start and virtual elimination from the ranks of the playoff contenders.*
*If you think this assumption is a bit premature, consider that the Eagles have to finish at least 10-1 to have a realistic shot at a playoff bid. Given the way they've played thus far, there's no reason to believe that will happen.
The Cowboys employed the "stand pat" philosophy. Despite a 6-10 finish in 2010, Dallas figured that they were unlucky with injuries and coaching and that a healthy team would play good football if it was kept together.
Unfortunately for Tony Romo and Co., all that this has led to is the dreaded "inconsistent 2-2" start. The difference between 2-2 and "inconsistent 2-2" is that the latter implies the team in question could be anywhere from 4-0 to 0-4. The Cowboys' offseason plan seems destined for 8-8.
The Giants decided to cut multiple starters and not upgrade problem positions. Perhaps Tom Coughlin saw something special in his role players (see Cruz, Victor) but for the most part, the Giants have played the up-and-down brand of football that has defined them for the last two years.
Week 5's 36-25 loss to the inferior Seattle Seahawks showed the Giants identity perfectly.
Then, there's the Redskins. How was their approach to the offseason different, and how has it resulted in a solid 3-1 record and sole possession of first place in the NFC East?
They used a tried and true strategy employed by one of the decade's most successful teams, the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are known for cutting their losses and replacing ineffective veterans with smart young players. They are famous for drafting well (and frequently) and acquiring players that fit their system as opposed to big stars.
The Redskins severed ties with failed free agent pickups Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth. They signed several free agents who filled needs and who don't have national name recognition (see Barry Coefield, O.J. Atogwe, Stephen Bowen, Sav Rocca).
They upgraded defensively to specifically fit their base 3-4 set. They held a fair and competitive quarterback competition. They upgraded their offensive line, wide receivers, and added rare depth at running back. They made smart moves to improve the secondary and had an excellent draft, yielding immediate contributors like Ryan Kerrigan and Roy Helu, Jr.
Upon close observation, it appears unsurprising why the Redskins lead the NFC East through five weeks. They were smart. They were patient. And most of all, they saw opportunities and cashed in on all of them.
All that remains to be seen is if Washington can keep it up for the rest of the season and make good on Rex Grossman's vow that they would win the division.