NFL Midseason Grades: NFC East
By James Pike.
As we are now more than half way through the NFL season and are on our way down the home stretch, we continue to take a look at each team and grade their season so far.
The next division I want to take a look at is arguably the hardest division in football to breakdown. The NFC East.
It has been a very peculiar year for the NFL’s marquee division, as all of its inhabitants have underperformed so far in 2020. How do we analyze a division where the team currently sitting in first place doesn’t have a winning record, and each team has essentially been a punching bag for the rest of the league?
Many would be tempted to give the whole thing a F and wash their hands of it, however I am going to try and look at it as subjectively as possible and evaluate the NFL’s worst division. It can’t be all bad right?
Philadelphia Eagles (3-4-1) – 1st in NFC East
Offensive Points Per Game: 23.3 (24th in NFL)
Defensive Points Per Game: 25.6 (14th in NFL)
As the current leaders of the NFC East, Philadelphia are in a prime position to clinch the division and secure themselves a 4th consecutive season in the playoffs. However, this has been a rather turbulent journey for the Eagles this year. As of right now Philly doesn’t hold a winning record, moreover they have only won one game outside of the division so far this year. A road win against a depleted San Francisco squad which is struggling to field a team due to injuries.
A loss in the season opener against Washington could come back to bite them, as it is still entirely possible that more than one team in this division ends the year with an identical record. So head to head records could play a major factor as to who will represent the East in the postseason. Philly; however, do look like the safest bet in the NFC East.
The Eagles offence hasn’t exactly been a juggernaut this season. With the exception being Miles Sanders, as the 2nd year running back has looked electric in 2020 thus far. In the five games he has played in this year he has averaged 6.1 yards per carry for a total of 434 yards, adding another 91 through the air. He’s also found the endzone three times.
The only issue is that Sanders can’t stay on the field long enough to make more of an impact. He has already missed three games so far this season, and if he continues to have injury issues going forward then this team is going to struggle. Injuries in general have played a massive role as to why Philadelphia have struggled so much this year.
Wide receivers Alshon Jeffrey, Desean Jackson and rookie Jalen Reagor have all battled to get healthy for the entire season. Jackson in fact was able to return and looked good against the Giants in week 7 but was forced out of the game early and the Eagles were back to square one.
Star Tight End Zach Ertz is now gone for the season, and his partner in crime Dallas Goedert has also been banged up. Everyone on offense who can contribute for the Eagles has spent time on the sideline in 2020, with only Travis Fulgham being a significant contributor.
With so much talent on the physio’s table, quarterback Carson Wentz has struggled to assert himself in games this year. Don’t get me wrong, Wentz isn’t exactly playing great himself, but when you lose your top six players to get the ball to, it makes life that much more difficult. So for now I am willing to give Wentz the benefit of the doubt, but keep an eye on whether or not the offense improves as we move into the second half of the season.
On the defensive side of the ball the Eagles appear to be finding their groove. Ageless wonder Brandon Graham continues to terrorize tackles and guards alike, as he leads the team with seven sacks on the year. In fact; the entire defensive front has been able to apply pressure on quarterbacks all season long. The issue with the Eagles is their lack of an ability to force turnovers, as they currently have a -7 differential in that department.
With significant investment made during the offseason to acquire star corner Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions, you’d have expected these numbers to be better this year. Thus far though it has been a different story for the Eagles.
It has been a shaky start for Philadelphia this season, and they are a far cry from the team that won the Super Bowl just a couple of seasons ago. However, if they can get healthy over the next few weeks, and string together some wins heading into the home stretch then this team can turn things around.
They are after all the front runners for a 3rd divisional title in four years, and despite their struggles this year look set to have a home playoff game come January. As we all know it is tough to head to Philly when it is cold and miserable and this team on their day can beat anyone, as they have proven before. Will the Eagles be able to put together enough wins to stave off the competition at the top of the East, or will their season unravel at the seams? It will be interesting to find out.
Dallas Cowboys (2-7) – 4th in NFC East
Offensive PPG: 22.7 (25th)
Defensive PPG: 32.2 (32nd)
If you were to take a look at this purely from a stats-based assessment, then you’re probably wondering how the Cowboys can possibly be given a C grade for their performance this season at the halfway stage.
On paper Dallas is awful; they cannot score, and they concede more points per game than any other team in the league. That is not a recipe for success on any level, however when you look at the reason why Dallas are currently ranked as one of the worst scoring teams in the league there is one very simple explanation. Dak Prescott.
To be more specific; the lack of Dak Prescott. Before their star quarterback’s season ended prematurely with one of the most gruesome looking injuries I have seen in a very long time the Cowboys were one of the most high powered offensive teams in the NFL. Although his touchdown to interception ratio wasn’t anything to write home about, the way he was able to move the ball down the field and give his team opportunities to score was. Dallas’ offense was electric with the 5th year signal caller under center, moreover the Dallas running game led by Ezekiel Elliott was also contributing in a big way.
Despite starting out the season 1-3 it looked as though Dem Boyz were starting to turn their season around with a week 5 victory against the New York Giants with crucial interdivisional battles against Washington and Philadelphia round the corner. However, that all came crashing down the second Dak went down for the year.
Since then Dallas has looked woeful on both sides of the ball. Blowout losses to Arizona, Washington and Philly followed and to compound their misery even further; experienced backup quarterback Andy Dalton suffered a nasty head injury and hasn’t seen the field since. Dallas now find themselves wallowing at the bottom of the division with the Giants only ahead of them due to winning the head to head tiebreaker, in the aforementioned game that has completely ruined their season.
Don’t get me wrong; Dallas had issues way before Prescott’s season ending injury. Their defense couldn’t stop anyone from the get go, and far too often America’s Team found themselves way behind in games having to play catch up. The job just became that much harder now that they are down to their 4th choice QB.
The game plan for beating the Cowboys became that much easier. Stack the box and slow star running back Elliott down, and force Dallas to beat you through the air. Since week 5; Zeke’s production has taken a huge down swing. He was averaging 4 yards per carry, had 537 total scrimmage yards and 6 touchdowns. Since then his average yards per carry is down to 3.5, he hasn’t found the endzone and has added just 273 yards scrimmage to his season total.
So why have I given Dallas a C grade? Well despite all of this, the Cowboys are still firmly in the hunt for the playoffs this year. As improbable as it would be for a team with a 2-7 record to still have a shot at postseason, due to the fact that the rest of the division hasn’t exactly been lighting it up in 2020.
Dallas will hopefully get Dalton back after their week 10 bye, and although he failed to deliver in his first two outings, I believe he will help to steady the ship on offense going forward. They still have one of the best wide receiving groups in the league, with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and emerging rookie CeeDee Lamb all more than capable of finding the endzone. If Dalton can get the ball in their hands, they will make plays, and this should open things up for the running game to make more of an impact.
The season is far from over for the Dallas Cowboys, as evidenced by their week 9 performance against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. Dallas pushed the Steelers all the way in a game which was much closer than it had any right to be. If the Cowboys can show the kind of fighting spirit they did against one of the league’s best teams for the rest of the season then we could realistically see AT&T Stadium hosting a playoff game in January.
New York Giants (2-7) – 3rd in NFC East
Offensive Points PPG: 18.7 (31st)
Defensive PPG: 24.3 (12th)
There was considerable optimism for the New York Football Giants before the start of the 2020 NFL season. After an up and down rookie season, many expected Daniel Jones’ Sophomore season to be much better than his first.
The appalling offensive line play from 2019 was addressed during the offseason, when the Giants took stud tackle prospect Andrew Thomas with the 4th overall pick in the 2020 draft. They also added much needed reinforcements to their secondary, adding veteran corner James Bradberry in free agency as well as drafting safety Xavier McKinney on day two of the draft.
New York also added Blake Martinez and Leonard Williams to further bluster the defense. These acquisitions along with hopefully improved play from Jones and getting a fully healthy Saqoun Barkley back had experts tipping the Giants to be much more competitive in the NFC East this season.
Well, the experts were half right.
The Giants are still competitive inside their division, as a couple of wins could realistically propel them to the top of the division. This of course has little to do with New York making significant strides this season and more to do with the fact their rivals haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire either.
This is slowly turning into a disaster for Big Blue. They still can’t protect the quarterback. Too many times the offensive line is manhandled by opposing defenses, which has forced more errors from Daniel Jones, who already has question marks regarding his decision making.
The team also lost star running back Barkley in just the second game of the season to an ACL tear suffered against the Steelers. If the Giants were to stand any chance of success this season, they needed Saqoun in the worst possible way. The offense has looked lost at times during this season, and it doesn’t look like things are going to be turning round any time soon.
One positive for the Giants is that it appears their defense has taken a huge stride forward in 2020. Bradberry in particular has been exceptional this season. When targeting the former Carolina Panther standout; opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 79.8. Bradberry has been able to take away the opposition team’s most dangerous weapon in the passing game more often than not.
The secondary as a whole has been a strength this year, and it has allowed the Giants pass rush to find success as well. They currently have 22 sacks so far this season, and the defense as a whole has been able to at least keep games close.
Despite their best efforts the Giants find themselves at the bottom of the NFC East, and although they are still firmly in the playoff hunt as of this writing, things could spiral out of control quickly if losses continue to pile up.
With a crucial run of games just round the corner, New York has an opportunity to put themselves right in the mix for a playoff berth. However, it is very unlikely that this team will be representing the East in the postseason. The Giants simply don’t have enough staying power in games to give themselves a realistic chance of beating the teams they need to beat. If this team cannot find a way to protect Daniel Jones or improve their ground game, New York is going nowhere fast.
To be fair to them, Big Blue never expected to be in the hunt for the postseason this late in the year. This is an organisation that is firmly in the midst of a rebuild and despite the lack of a true contender in the division, I don’t believe that the Giants have made plans for a Super Bowl run.
Therefore, this grade seems appropriate for a team who despite making improvements on the defensive side of the ball have not addressed their biggest concern which is protecting their franchise quarterback. Until New York can find a way to keep Jones on his feet for the rest of the season then I believe the home stretch could be long and painful for the franchise.
Washington Football Team (2-6) – 2nd in NFC East
Offensive PPG: 19.1 (30th)
Defensive PPG: 23.5 (11th)
Washington Football Team are the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde of the NFL this year. On the offensive side of the ball this team is timid, passive and rarely gets involved with any confrontation. The defensive side of the ball on the other hand is a monster, which on its day can rip opposition offensive lines to shreds and punch teams squarely in the mouth.
There is simply no starker contrast in the league than there is when it comes to a team’s strengths and weaknesses than Washington.
It all starts with the absolute mess that is the quarterback situation. Dwayne Haskins started the season as the guy under center, but character issues and sloppy play has led to him having one step out the door already in just his 2nd season with Football Team.
Kyle Allen was serviceable as the team’s stop gap, but another devastating ankle injury to an NFC East signal caller ended his season early. Returning hero Alex Smith is now the team’s starter going forward, and as much as I love the feel good story of Smith being back in the league after almost having his leg amputated, he simply hasn’t had enough time to find his rhythm in this offense. Putting points on the board has been a struggle for Washington all season. Nevertheless, there have been some bright spots on this side of the ball.
“Scary” Terry McLaurin continues to cement himself as one of the best young wide receivers in football. The playmaker has shown off his deep threat abilities on multiple occasions so far this year, regardless of who has been throwing the football.
Rookie running back Antonio Gibson looks like the real deal too, whether that be running the ball or catching passes out of the back field. He’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has 573 total scrimmage yards on the season. All this while splitting time with J.D McKissic who has been featured as the team’s primary 3rd down option. Gibson currently has 5 touchdowns on the year, and we only expect his role to increase as the season goes on.
Defensively Washington has been very impressive so far this year. They are one of the hardest teams to move the ball on, and that all begins with their front seven. Chase Young hasn’t broken out in 2020 just yet, but he has flashed his enormous potential during his rookie campaign with Football Team.
Montez Sweat appears to be the man benefitting from teams having to deal with Young, as he leads the team with five sacks on the year. The secondary hasn’t looked bad either, as they have been able to force turnovers due to the pressure the front seven are creating. Kendall Fuller leads the way with four interceptions already this season.
So, there have been positives this season for Washington but the reason why this team has the lowest grade of any team in the East is that there were expectations for this team heading into the season.
Haskins was expected to take a big leap this season. Instead he appears to have forced himself out the door due to a lack of discipline and commitment. Their defense was expected to perform well and they have, but with the lack of help for McLaurin and Gibson the offense continues to fall flat on its face.
Before the start of the year I had Washington as a dark horse to make the playoffs in the NFC East due to the significant improvements to their defense (As we all know, defense wins championships!). Now though the season appears lost, even though they are only one game back from first place.
Football Team may already have their eyes fixed on next season, and the search for a franchise quarterback continues in Washington. Hopefully next season this team can finally break through the glass ceiling and establish themselves as a team to watch going forward. For now though, they will have to settle for another losing season.