Unabated to the Quarterback: The NFC East

We’re taking a different route with our NFL preview this season. Eschewing typical predictions—those require some form of legitimate knowledge—we’re asking what each NFL team means. An NFL season is a research paper, and each team enters it with a thesis statement.

New York Giants (11-5)

Why Aren’t the Giants Any Better?

“Virtue is nothing but a just temper between propensities any one of which, if indulged to excess, becomes vice.” —Thomas Babington Macaulay

Our introductory question is perhaps a counterintuitive one, given how, you might remember, the Giants won the Super Bowl last season for the second time in five years. But New York was, by the basic measurements, the worst team to ever do so: Its 9-7 record was the worst by an eventual champion, and no team had ever advanced to the Super Bowl after accumulating a negative point differential during the regular season, let alone win one.

It is hard to reconcile, then, these two different Giants teams — the one that was so thoroughly mediocre during the regular season (they lost to the Redskins! Twice!) and the one that steamrolled the 15-1 Packers and edged the Niners and the Patriots in the playoffs. Which team are the Giants really?

The answer, and this has been true for some time, is frustratingly in the middle. The Giants are a flawed team capable of overcoming those flaws in short bursts but not, it seems, for sustained stretches.* They are the modern sports franchise that thrives when it is counted out: the embodiment of every “Nobody believed in us!” cliché. The us-against-the-world mentality seems particularly powerful in football, a sport so built on emotion and where wanting it more might actually mean something.

*The counter-argument you can make here is the first dozen games of 2008, when New York was 11-1.

On the other hand, the Giants would also be better served if the NFL were like the NBA, where mediocre regular seasons were routinely rewarded with playoff berths, so New York could coast from Weeks 1 to 17 and then do its thing each January.

People believe in the Giants again, which is precisely why they shouldn’t.

Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

The Blessing and Curse of the Star

“We all disappoint, eventually.” —Joseph O’Neill

I hate the Cowboys, and yet I must admit they have the best logo in sports. No other team has so successfully appropriated an everyday object and made it its own. The Yankees interlocked an “N” and a “Y” (in two different ways). The Celtic is cartoonish. The Canadiens made a “C” slightly wider than usual and stuck an “H” in the middle.

Nothing beats the star.*

*Would Terrell Owens ever have done this to another team’s midfield logo?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wnl3XELB9A

That star does some strange things to legacies. For one, it seems to me that Tony Romo will never be properly rated. When Romo first came onto the scene in 2006 in place of Drew Bledsoe, there is no question that he was wildly overrated. Nobody should make the Pro Bowl based off 10 starts. Now that he’s missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, Romo appears vastly underrated — the punchline to a bad joke that neglects how much offensive linemen influence quarterback play.

Romo enters this season as probably the seventh or eighth best quarterback in the league, depending on how you feel about things like Matthew Stafford’s health and Michael Vick’s inconsistency and whether or not Cam Newton is a quarterbacking ubermensch in the making. Sure QB rating is flawed, but that Romo had the fourth-best in the league — behind only the newfound holy trinity of Brady, Brees and Rodgers — indicates he’s not that bad after all.

Interlude: Why the Officials Matter

This is going to be a disaster.

Maybe not from an on-field standpoint, but from a public relations perspective, the NFL is already losing the battle to its locked-out officials.

This is because we know NFL officials. While everyone else on the field wears a facemask, we see the officials clearly. We know the referee by name and, sometimes, by voice. In no other sport do the officials interact with the audience; in the NFL, the referee stands in the middle of our television screen and announces every penalty.

So when these officials screw up—and they’re going to screw up; they’re officials—their mistakes will be public. And so will the primal cause behind them: the NFL’s intransigence. 

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

America’s Team

“The history of life is that most people figure it out. Most of the time it’s too late.” —Bill Walton

It surprises me that the Eagles are not the most loved team in the NFL right now.

I just finished saying how I hate the Cowboys and all, but I really hate the Eagles. They’ve been grinding my gears for a decade now—the only NFC team with a similar pedigree over that time period as my Giants, and one with a penchant for dealing Big Blue some truly devastating losses.

But this isn’t about me. Why wouldn’t the average, no-loyalty, Madden-playing, fantasy-obsessing football fan absolutely love the Eagles? Philadelphia pretty much seems constructed like the ideal Madden squad. Michael Vick remains the most tantalizing player in the game (unless Cam Newton is a quarterbacking ubermensch in the making), capable of doing things we’ve either never seen or forgotten Randall Cunningham doing. LeSean McCoy cuts in the NFL the way Reggie Bush used to in the Pac-10, seemingly in mid-air. DeSean Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Maclin are speed demons on the outside with the potential to turn any reception (or in Jackson’s case, punt return) into six points.

Even on defense, the Eagles embrace the Madden aesthetic. Who needs linebackers when you’ve got pass-rushing ends and risk-taking corners?

Of course, constructing an NFL roster and a Madden roster are two different things—Vick won’t be at the helm of an exclusively bootlegging offense or returning any punts this year, as he often did back in Madden ’04. And oh yeah, injuries are a lot more frequent in the real world.

The Eagles’ backup quarterback is Nick Foles.

Washington Redskins (6-10)

Hope in Change in the Nation’s Capital

“It’s always been hard for me to tell the difference between denial and what used to be known as hope.” —Michael Chabon

The story is no different for the Redskins this autumn than in several autumns past. Washington has made a critical offseason investment in a select (in this case one) number of entities, and its success in the subsequent season will depend on whether it was a wise choice. The Redskins have done it with veterans past their prime in Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith, they’ve done it with late-first-round quarterbacks in Patrick Ramsey and Jason Campbell, they’ve done it with coaches in Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan.

Only one—Gibbs—has paid off to this point.

Now it’s Robert Griffin III’s turn, a player with the potential talent and personality to make all Washington’s draft-day maneuvering seem worthwhile (although it should be noted that trading up for a player almost never works out).

The question will center on the Redskins’ commitment to Griffin. The recent success of rookie quarterbacks such as Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Cam Newton, and Andy Dalton suggests that the learning curve between college and the pros has grown less steep, and that expectations need not be tempered with a rookie under center. (Indeed, that is likely why five teams are going in that direction in Week One.) If Griffin were to stumble—and as good as he is, the chances are that he’ll stumble, since Washington doesn’t have the infrastructure around him that Baltimore, New York and Cincinnati had for their rookie QBs—how would Daniel Snyder respond? Are three years of Shanahan enough of a sample size? What apple might catch the owner’s eye next?

Give him this: Snyder dares greatly. But perhaps too often.

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