Thursday night brought yet another nationally televised matchup between two teams from the NFC East, the league’s prime-time junk box. The lowly Giants and Eagles battled in one of the funniest games I can remember, highlighted by New York quarterback Daniel Jones inexplicably falling over en route to a near-certain touchdown:
Please enjoy the extraordinary Fox Deportes call of the Daniel Jones run. pic.twitter.com/PWFxJ0bb0S— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) October 23, 2020
While Jones was impressively fast on the run, he fell over from running. Like, he didn’t trip. His legs just started going at a speed his upper body couldn’t handle. Other than that, Jones played decently—he committed only two turnovers! That’s good for him!
However, an alarmingly injured Eagles team struggled to field a coherent football team. On a critical fourth down in the fourth quarter, the Eagles ran the notorious end zone fade. The success of an end zone fade depends on the receiver who must defeat a defensive back in one-on-one coverage in tight quarters. Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson made it look easy; basically everybody else struggles. The receiver the Eagles threw to was tight end Hakeem Butler, who was literally playing the first offensive snap of his career.
butler has to give some fight here pic.twitter.com/Rx2HLgDStY— charles (#1 going hyperdrive fan) mcdonald (@FourVerts) October 23, 2020
The Giants, who hired a special teams coach as their head coach this offseason, were caught looking clueless twice on special teams. First they failed to notice a free touchdown on a punt—sure, not the most obvious thing, but something you’d think a special teams coach would teach them how to look for:
the HC is a special teams guy but his team isn’t coached up on how to convert free plays pic.twitter.com/lQhY23EKU1— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) October 23, 2020
And then after punting while protecting a five-point lead with two minutes to go, the Giants gave the Eagles a free 15 yards by committing a vicious and illegal hit on Eagles return man DeSean Jackson, who was injured on the play. Philly took advantage, marched right down the field, and won the game 22-21. The Eagles now lead the division at 2-4-1. That’s right: They’re a game and a half below .500, somehow managed to tie a game, and are the best team in the division.
It was the second dismal NFC East performance on a national stage in three nights: On Monday Night Football, the Cardinals obliterated the Cowboys, winning 38-10 against a team that looks completely lost without Dak Prescott. (Seven of those 10 points came in garbage time.) The NFC East is like a bully’s booger. It’s disgusting and everybody would prefer not to know it even exists, but the bully not only keeps yoinking it out of his nose, but also makes other kids look at it.
These are some of the most famous and beloved franchises in football, and they all suck. The Eagles’ start is the most defensible, because their failures are primarily injury induced, but they still managed to turn a Super Bowl champion into football gruel in three years. The Cowboys are undergoing a quiet mutiny after the team realized new head coach Mike McCarthy is actually the exact same uninspired coach who always pissed off Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. The Giants hired a stereotype of a motivational speaker to be their head coach because he has successful friends. The Washington Football Team just benched Dwayne Haskins, the quarterback it drafted in the first round last year for Kyle Allen, who is clearly incapable of being an NFL starter but who head coach Ron Rivera really likes for unexplained reasons.
You don’t have a choice about whether or not you want to experience the NFC East. If you’re a football fan, it will be on your television set for large swaths of the next two months. Since avoiding the NFL’s worst division is not an option, here are some ways to contextualize and appreciate the NFL’s prime-time junkyard.
Just How Bad Is the NFC East?
The hypothetical worst division possible in the NFL would have no out-of-division victories and the four worst teams in the league. The NFC East isn’t quite that bad—but they’re closer than I ever thought one group could be to achieving that goal. (More of an own goal, I guess.)
The four teams—the Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, and Washington Football Team—are a combined 6-19-1, which is truly awful. But four of those six wins have come from playing each other. If we take out those matchups, the NFC East is 2-15-1. One of the wins and the tie came against the Falcons and Bengals, who are 1-5 and 1-4-1, respectively. Against teams that are over .500, the NFC East is 0-14. And that win against the Falcons came courtesy of Dak Prescott, who threw for 450 yards in that game. Things might get worse.
Perhaps a better way to analyze the division would be to remove scheduling quirks from the equation and look at advanced statistics—but that doesn’t help this group at all. The four NFC East teams are ranked 26th, 27th, 30th, and 31st according to defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). THINK ABOUT HOW BAD THAT IS. That means the four NFC East teams are all among the seven worst teams in the league. According to those rankings, the Cowboys are the best team in the NFC East, but would be the worst in four of the other seven divisions.
Other projections are slightly kinder to the Eagles. FiveThirtyEight’s quarterback-adjusted ELO ratings have the two-and-a-half-win Eagles as the 19th-best team in the league; ESPN’s FPI has them at 23rd. But that’s still worse than the average NFL team—and those metrics are still absolutely brutal to the rest of the pack. Both have the Giants, Cowboys, and the Football Team clumped together between 28th and 30th, with just the Jets and Jaguars ranking worse.
What Is the Worst Possible Record for the 2020 NFC East Champion?
In this scenario, let’s imagine that all four NFC East teams lose every single game against teams from other divisions. This isn’t likely—the division still has two games against the Bengals, and the Cowboys have a game against the hapless Vikings—but it’s definitely possible. And to maximize the badness of the division champion’s final record, we’re going to project the team with the worse record to win every single game. In this scenario, the 4-11-1 Eagles just barely edge out the 4-12 Cowboys. I’ve never imagined a more perfect playoff scenario. And we can dream: When ESPN ran 20,000 simulations of the season, the 4-11-1 Eagles were division champions 11 times. That’s a .05 percent chance—about one in 2,000, but I’ll take it. (They also had one scenario in which three teams went 4-12, and another where the 4-10-2 Eagles won the division.)
OK, What’s a Realistic Record for an NFC East Champion?
FiveThirtyEight projects the Eagles to win the conference at 7-8-1; Football Outsiders’ playoff odds give the Cowboys the highest projected win total at 6.3 wins, but that was last updated before the Eagles’ Thursday night win. ESPN says there’s a 66 percent chance the division winner has seven or fewer wins and a 28 percent chance of winning six or fewer games. So we should probably be expecting a seven-win champ.
Is This the Worst Division Ever?
It really could be! There have been two sub-.500 playoff teams in NFL history. (Four, if we count the strike-shortened 1982 season, when teams played only nine games and 16 teams made the playoffs. But we probably shouldn’t.) One is the 2010 Seahawks, who went 7-9; the other was the 2014 Panthers, who went 7-8-1. The Seahawks won a relatively competitive division—the Rams were also 7-9, and nobody was worse than 5-11. There is no way the NFC East’s worst team will get to five wins this year. And the Panthers’ division featured the 7-9 Saints. Do we really think the NFC East’s second-best team can win seven games?
If the NFC East’s champion has a record below .500 and doesn’t win a playoff game (somehow the 7-9 Seahawks and 7-8-1 Panthers both stole one), the division will have a strong case as the worst of all time. If the champion wins six games or worse—and there’s a decent chance of that happening—we wouldn’t even need to hold a debate.
Why Does It Matter That the NFC East Sucks?
The NFC East’s crappiness isn’t contained to the division. It also mucks up the NFL playoffs. Every division winner gets a home playoff game—even if that division winner is 4-11-1. (I’m definitely starting to root for the 4-11-1 scenario.)
But because of the way NFL scheduling works, the NFC East’s sheer crappiness also messes up the playoff picture for the rest of the league. Every team plays six games against teams in its own division, four games against teams from another division in the same conference, four games against teams from another division in another conference, and two against non-division teams in its own conference. This year, the NFC East is playing the NFC West and AFC North.
In theory, when you play four teams from another division, you’ll get one game against a great team, one game against a good team, one game against a bad team, and one game against a terrible team. But the NFC East features four of the seven worst teams in the league! So the NFC West and AFC North are getting a huge boost compared to the other teams in the fight to make the playoffs. For example, the Rams are 4-0 against the NFC East and 0-2 against everybody else. The Browns and Cardinals are a combined 4-0 against the NFC East and 4-4 against other teams. As a result, the NFC West might become the first division ever to get all four teams into the playoffs, and the AFC North is in pretty good shape to get three teams in. It’s fair to say the NFC East’s stunning lack of skill will dramatically alter the playoff picture in both conferences.
So Why Is the NFC East So Bad?
Coming into the year, we knew the division wouldn’t be pretty. The Giants and the Football Team both drafted duds at quarterback in the first round last year, and then made coaching changes in the offseason. FiveThirtyEight’s preseason projections had New York 29th and Washington 32nd. Other projections were roughly the same—Football Outsiders had them 25th and 32nd; ESPN had them 26th and 31st.
It’s not that ridiculous for a division to have two awful teams. But the Cowboys and Eagles were expected to be, at the very least, passable. They had the fifth- and seventh-best preseason odds to win the Super Bowl, respectively. (FiveThirtyEight had them sixth and ninth; FO had them eighth and 10th; ESPN had them fifth and sixth). But their defenses have been worse than anybody could have expected. The Eagles were projected to have the fourth-best defensive DVOA in the league; instead they’re 19th. Dallas straight up has the worst defense … maybe ever. They’re allowing 36.3 points per game; the NFL record for most points allowed per game during a season is 35.8, by the 1966 Giants.
And both offenses have been obliterated by injuries. The Eagles are now without nine of their 11 projected offensive starters, as well as several critical backups. (My favorite current starting Eagle is Jordan Mailata, the 6-foot-8, 350-pound Australian who grew too big for rugby and was picked by Philadelphia in the seventh round in the 2018 NFL draft despite the fact that he’d never played football before. He’s their starting left tackle now, and he’s not even close to being their worst player.) The Cowboys lost Dak Prescott, and the drop-off to Andy Dalton has been predictably enormous. With Prescott, the Cowboys were on pace to set NFL passing records, and were averaging over 30 points a game. With Dalton, they scored 10 on Monday night. (I guess we could also mention the injury to Giants running back Saquon Barkley, but come on, the Giants would still be awful even if he was healthy.)
Are There Any Good NFC East Players?
Not really! As of right now, just 10 players in the entire division are ranked in the top 10 at their positions by Pro Football Focus, and two of those players (Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and RG Zack Martin) are injured right now. Several are also a bit surprising, and maybe misleading—tight end Richard Rodgers, a third-stringer elevated to starting duty because of injuries to Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and wide receiver Travis Fulgham, who was cut by the Packers weeks before the season started and is playing due to an untold number of injuries. It’s true that both have played surprisingly well considering their depth chart status, but I’d be lying if I thought either player was actually one of the 10 best in the NFL at their position.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell ran through the thought experiment of how good an NFC East superteam of healthy players would look, and honestly? It looks kinda bad.
Here’s my team of healthy players left in the NFC East pic.twitter.com/sq5Ax1paLV— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) October 20, 2020
The defense would be solid, with three former All-Pros in Fletcher Cox, Leighton Vander Esch, and Darius Slay. And the Cowboys’ offensive skill-position players alone make the team pretty sick, with Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott. Plus, you’d have a pretty solid amount of depth since you’re combining four football teams, after all.
But it’s wild how many holes there still are, particularly at meaningful positions. After the injury to Prescott, Carson Wentz is pretty clearly the best quarterback in the division, and he’s having a terrible season. After injuries to Tyron Smith and Jason Peters, nobody has a good left tackle. Barnwell put Giants rookie Andrew Thomas as the starting LT, but he was briefly benched last week. Two of the top three wide receivers are rookies, even though rookies are notoriously bad at adjusting to the NFL at that position. You should be able to create a Super Bowl champion by mashing an entire division into one team, but this one would have some serious trouble scoring points.
How Many More Nationally Televised NFC East Games Must We Endure?
Five, including four Cowboys games.
- Next week’s Sunday Night Football game between the Cowboys and the Eagles
- Week 8’s Monday Night Football between the Giants and Buccaneers
- After a merciful three-week gap,the annually scheduled Cowboys Thanksgiving game, against the Washington Football Team
- Week 13’s Thursday Night Football between the Cowboys and Ravens (Yikes)
- Week 15’s Sunday Night Football between the Cowboys and 49ers
However, if we broaden the definition of “nationally televised” to include the late-afternoon Sunday slot—usually used as showcases— we get another four:
- Week 9: Cowboys-Steelers
- Week 13: Eagles-Packers
- Week 14: Washington Football Team–49ers
- Week 16: Cowboys-Eagles
Why Does the NFL Keep Feeding Us This Trash?
Quite frankly, because we eat it up—specifically the Cowboys. Pretty consistently, year after year, the most-watched regular-season NFL games are Cowboys games. Last year, the most-watched games were the Thanksgiving clash between the Cowboys and Bills (32.6 million viewers) and the Week 12 game between the Cowboys and Patriots (29.5 million viewers). In 2018, two of the top three were intra-NFC East matchups, both featuring the Cowboys. And two of the three most-watched games this season have been Cowboys games. The most-watched Sunday Night Football game ever was a Cowboys game (the 2012 Week 17 matchup with Washington, which Robert Griffin III and Co. won and earned a playoff spot), and four of the top 10 all-time highest-viewed Monday Night Football games on ESPN have been Cowboys games.
If the Cowboys are good, it’s a ratings bonanza. In 2017, their playoff game against the Packers was the most-watched divisional-round game ever. But if the Cowboys suck, we will watch them anyway. Even in 2015, when the Cowboys went 4-12, they played in the three most-watched games of the season.
The NFL could pretty much just put all 16 Cowboys games on national TV and we’d watch all of them. And it’s really not that far off from what they do—they have 10 games remaining, and six are either on national TV or in the late Sunday slot. If you’re mad at the NFL for giving us so much Cowboys, you really should be mad at yourself for watching.
What Should We Do About All This?
The NFC East’s remaining games this year are all objectively bad games. None of the division’s members are going to win half of their games, despite the fact that they play so many games against one another.
But “bad” is objective. Yes, Thursday night’s game sucked. One team could barely field a roster, yet still managed to win, in part because “running” proved too difficult for the other team. But it was about as much fun as I’ve had watching a football game this year. The NFC East teams are more famous and more beloved than just about any in football, and none of them can figure out how to “offense” right now. These are billion-dollar battleships, and they’re struggling to stay afloat before any shots are even fired. Sometimes, it’s nice to watch low-stakes failure—and I can’t think of any sports stakes lower than seeing which team will screw up the least and ride this poop tsunami to a first-round playoff exit.