Stumbling backwards

A look at the NFL’s worst division

Jeffrey Radhaus
Nov 16 · 9 min read
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Chris Spielman and Kevin Kugler call the Eagles-Giants game. Courtesy: Fox Sports.

It’s Sunday afternoon, November 15, 2020, and Kevin Kugler and Chris Spielman are up in the press box at the nearly empty MetLife Stadium providing play-by-play in a game between two of the worst teams in the National Football League. Going into the game, the Philadelphia Eagles are 3–4–1 and the New York Giants are 2–7.

Despite their dismal records, one of these teams could actually win the NFC East and go to the playoffs. Given the way both teams have played this season, it seems impossible . . . and yet it’s not. That’s because the other two teams in the NFC East are the 2–6 Washington Football Team and the 2–7 Dallas Cowboys.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones likes to run against the Eagles. The first time these two teams met, on October 22, Jones broke loose from the pocket and ran 80 yards before tripping over his own laces on the Eagles’ 10-yard line. The Giants still managed to score on that drive, but the Giants ended up losing to the Eagles by one point.

Early in Sunday’s rematch, Jones broke through the Eagles’ defense again, running for 34 yards and, this time, scoring a touchdown.

“Giants fans are very happy Jones was able to get in the endzone without tripping over the 10-yard line,” Spielman says.

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The NFC East standings going into Sunday’s game.

The Eagles, with those three wins, go into the game in first place. Two of their wins came at the expense of other NFC East teams — they beat the Giants by one point and then beat the depleted Cowboys 23–9 last week. No other NFC East team has three wins.

But the Eagles have many, many problems. The Eagles’ most prominent issue is an offensive line that provides little protection for quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles have had eight different player combinations on the offensive line in nine weeks. The result is that Wentz has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL.

Wentz himself is far from blameless. He keeps making bad decisions. Going into Sunday’s rematch with the Giants, Wentz had already thrown 12 interceptions, which is 5 more interceptions than he had in all of last season.

There is a growing sentiment that Wentz, once celebrated as a football god in “Wentzylvania,” should be benched in favor of back-up Jalen Hurts. Even worse, some have suggested that it was a mistake to make Wentz the Eagles’ franchise quarterback in the first place.

“I actually thought that they should have kept Nick Foles rather than Carson Wentz,” former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre recently opined.

There is statue to Foles outside the Eagles’ stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, commemorating the moment during Super Bowl LII when he talked Eagles head coach Doug Pederson into running the “Philly Special.”

There is no statue to Wentz.

“[The Eagles] obviously are banking on [Wentz’s] upside,” Favre continued. “But how many more years do you let it linger before you stick with him, or you cut bait?”

Ouch.

Favre was one of Wentz’s childhood heroes, and he’s close friends with Pederson, who was Favre’s back-up at Green Bay before Aaron Rodgers arrived. At a press conference last week, Pederson twice responded to Favre’s comments by saying he respected his opinion.

On his third throw of the game against the Giants, Wentz is almost picked off for what would have been interception number 13 of the season. Instead, the Eagles keep possession and kick a field goal.

The Giants came into the game with just two wins, both against the most consistently awful NFC East team, the Washington Football Team. Still, the Giants could win the NFC East.

Why not?

Spielman calls them the best 2–7 team, which is a weird thing to say. Are they better than the 2–7 Houston Texans? Or maybe he was comparing them to the 2–7 Cowboys. “They just need to learn how to win,” Spielman adds, which is also a weird thing to say.

But if you were going to make the case for the Giants winning the NFC East, you could start with the fact that the Giants have been competitive in every game since week 3. On October 11, for example, they lost to the Cowboys by just a field goal. Then, on October 22, they lost to the Eagles by a single point. Then, on November 2, they lost to Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers by just 2 points.

So close.

Good teams find ways to win close games, so it’s hard to conclude that the Giants are a good team. And yet…

“The Giants can win the NFC East and make the playoffs this season,” Pat Leonard writes in the New York Daily News. “It’s unlikely, but they can do it.”

Leonard observes that if the Giants beat the Eagles, the Giants would be in the playoff hunt. Remember, when Leonard wrote the words “in the playoff hunt,” he was talking about a 2–7 team. That’s how bad the NFC East is. A team that has won just two of out nine games is right in the mix. But first they need to beat the Eagles, which is not something they have been able to do since 2016.

The Giants are dominating the Eagles. After driving down the field, Giants running back Wayne Gallman launches himself over the Eagles’ defensive line for a touchdown, making it 14–3.

The Eagles get the ball back and Wentz makes two completions to third-string tight end Richard Rodgers. But then, on third and one, Wentz takes the snap, steps back, trips over his own feet, and falls down. No one has touched him. This makes it fourth down and the Eagles have to punt.

As Fox goes to commercial, they show the replay in slow motion. There’s Wentz slowly backing up with the ball and then crumbling to the ground.

“It epitomizes 2020,” Kugler says. “Stumbling backwards.”

The Washington Football Team, which still has no name despite being offered helpful suggestions, is in Detroit playing the Lions. At halftime, the Lions lead 14–3.

Early in the season, the Washington Football Team benched their new franchise quarterback, Dwayne Haskins. In the Washington Post, Kevin Blackstone wrote that Haskins was not just benched, “he was doused with humiliation to boot — either by owner Daniel Snyder, whose franchise has the NFL’s fifth-worst winning percentage over his 21-plus seasons, or by Snyder’s newest coach, Ron Rivera.”

It was probably Snyder. A report on “rampant sexual harassment” in Snyder’s organization noted that Snyder fostered “a sophomoric culture of verbal abuse among top executives” that played a role in how those executives treated their employees.

Although, to be fair, Blackstone did not seem to be talking about that type of humiliation. Rather, he was troubled by the fact that Haskins was dropped to third on the depth chart “behind the unremarkable Kyle Allen and Alex Smith, who is remarkably recovered from what was a life-threatening injury.”

Against the Lions, Smith started his first game since the injury in 2018 that many thought he would never recover from. With Allen out, the Washington Football Team reactivated Haskins to serve as Smith’s back-up. Going into the game, it seemed like Washington was experimenting with its quarterbacks in yet another rebuilding year.

This is yet another rebuilding year for Washington, right?

Not so fast, writes Les Carpenter in the Post. This is a team that, like the Giants, has two wins (one against the Eagles and one against the Cowboys). Like the Giants, they can still win the division and go to the playoffs. So Carpenter made the case that the Washington Football Team should put off rebuilding and focus on winning the division.

Similarly, Wes McElroy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch argued that the Washington Football Team can win the NFC East. “Someone has to take this division, and probably will do it with six victories.”

Why not the Washington Football Team?

All they need to do is start winning football games. And on Sunday, Smith and his offense made a second half comeback against the Lions, tying the game at 27–27. Could the Washington Football Team possibly beat a team that is not in the NFC East?

Spoiler alert: No. No, they can’t.

The Lions won with a last minute field goal, 30–27. “The loss is crushing for Washington’s playoff hopes, minimal as they may have been, but it showed the resolve of its players — especially [Smith],” Nicki Jhabvala wrote in the Post.

Somebody has to win this division. It’s just not going to be the Washington Football Team.

At the end of the first half, Fox sideline reporter Laura Okmin approaches Pederson, but before she can ask him a question he gives his one-word answer: “Penalties.”

On the first play of the second half, on the kick return, the Eagles are penalized for a block to the back. Maybe Pederson’s team didn’t get the message?

But then things suddenly swing the Eagles way. Eagles running back Boston Scott breaks free to run 56 yards for a touchdown. The Eagles add a two-point conversion to narrow the Giants’ lead to 14–11.

When the Giants get the ball, Jones completes two long passes to quickly put them in the red zone. Gallman rushes for another touchdown, and the Eagles’ momentum has been extinguished.

It was a bye week for the 2–7 Cowboys and time to reassess.

The Cowboys lost starting quarterback Dak Prescott when he suffered a severe ankle injury in their win against the Giants. It was reminiscent of what happened to Alex Smith in 2018. The Cowboys had already been struggling and now needed a quarterback. They tried out three replacements.

The Cowboys first started Andy Dalton, who was promptly injured. Suddenly it was time for the debut of rookie third-string quarterback Ben DiNucci. DiNucci, starting in the Cowboys’ loss to the Eagles, did not look ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Last week, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cowboys started someone named Garrett Gilbert. The Cowboys had found him on Cleveland Browns’ practice squad. Surprisingly, Gilbert looked pretty solid against the Steelers, keeping the game competitive (the Steelers won, 24–19). Nevertheless, after the bye the Cowboys plan to go back to Dalton.

During the bye week, Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones gave a press conference and asserted that the Cowboys could win the NFC East. “The east is what it is,” he said. He also said there were no plans to fire the Cowboys’ first-year head coach, Mike McCarthy. Did he clear that statement with his dad, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones?

When the Eagles get the ball back in the third quarter, Wentz fumbles another snap (the third time this happened so far in the game), but running back Miles Sanders picks it up and runs for a first down. The Eagles finish the drive with a rushing touchdown by third-string running back Corey Clement. It’s a four-point game, 21–17. The Eagles try for two again, but this time Wentz is sacked.

In the fourth quarter, Giants kicker Graham Gano makes a 35-yard field goal to make it 24–17. Kugler says New York can breathe a sigh of relief. “Technically, we’re in New Jersey,” Spielman notes.

It’s make or break time for the Eagles, but their offense sputters and fails to convert on fourth down. Giants get the ball back with a 10-point lead. They appear to have it in the bag, but that was also how things seemed on October 22, when the Eagles came from behind to win 22–21. Also, the Giants have not beaten the Eagles since 2016 so no one in New York (technically, New Jersey) is counting their chickens.

Jones throws a 40-yard pass to wide receiver Darius Slayton. “The play of Daniel Jones may end up saving Thanksgiving for Giants fans,” Kugler jokes. Gano adds another field goal for the Giants, making it 27–17.

With three minutes remaining, the Eagles get the ball back with no timeouts. The Giants sack Wentz again. Is this really happening?

“The Giants are about to beat someone other than the Washington Football Team,” Spielman announces.

“And the NFC East continues to perplex,” Kugler adds.

Then it’s final. The Giants beat the Eagles 27–17 to improve to 3–7. It’s hard to believe, but this Giants team that came into the game with just two wins — both against the miserable Washington Football Team — could actually win the NFC East. The Giants could be going to the playoffs, or at least are in the playoff hunt

Meanwhile, the Eagles stumble backwards to 3–5–1 . . . and remain in first place in the awful NFC East.

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The NFC East standings on November 15, 2020.

The Hit Job

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