If you are the reigning NFC East champs, then I got some disappointing news for you – you’re not going to win the division again. Okay, well that’s not necessarily true, but if the last 10 years has shown us anything, it's that winning the division in back-to-back years just doesn’t happen. You have to go all the way back to 2004 when Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens helped the Philadelphia Eagles repeat as division champs en route to a Super Bowl appearance (spoiler alert: they didn’t win).
One common denominator of each of the recently successful teams was the good play of their quarterback. The team won the division had the best performing quarterback. Here is the QB rating for each divisional winning quarterback over the last four years (and how they ranked in the league) :
And even Eli Manning had one of his better seasons in 2011 when the New York Giants won the division. He finished 7th with a 92.9 QB rating that year. Football is a team game, but the play of the quarterback has loomed large when determining which team has won the division.
While the Cowboys and Giants have been set with their quarterbacks for the last decade, the Redskins and Eagles have gone through some transitioning. Washington enjoyed the early success of Robert Griffin III, but now are relying on the arm of Kirk Cousins. Philadelphia looked like they had something special in Nick Foles after such a great 2013 campaign where he threw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions over 10 starts. But his success wasn’t sustainable as he struggled the following year and then got traded to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. And despite Bradford having a career high in yardage (3,725) and completion percentage (65%), the Eagles invested heavily to move up so they could take Carson Wentz in the draft.
So if 2016 follows in line with the last four years where the performance of the quarterback lines up with the division winner, which team has the advantage?
Let’s break down each team and look at their quarterback’s upside…
Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Let’s start with the defending NFC East Champs. Cousins is the reigning top QB of this group with a very impressive season last year. He completed almost 70% of his passes for 4,166 yards with 29 touchdowns and only 11 picks during his first full year taking over as the team’s starting quarterback. Forget about his fourth-round draft pedigree as we all know how little weight that carries once you get rolling in the NFL. All that can be said right now is – Cousins seems to be firing on all cylinders.
And his weapons just got a boost with the Redskins first-round selection of WR Josh Doctson. The rookie from TCU has a lot of impressive traits that should make him a nice target for Cousins. And if you add him to Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, and the very-skilled-when-healthy tight end, Jordan Reed – that’s a formidable receiving group.
While Cousins played well last season, he is going to have to show he can sustain his success. If Nick Foles has taught us anything, it’s that let’s not get too ahead of ourselves when it comes to anointing the next great QB in this league. The pieces are certainly in place for Cousins to have another good season, but the proof will be in the pudding.
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Now, most of you might be quick to point out that Sam Bradford is still the team’s starting quarterback. And that is absolutely correct. But if we are examining the best case scenario for each team, is it really going to come from Bradford? The team finished 7-9 last season with Bradford at the helm. Yes, that was Chip Kelly’s Eagles team, but by now people know what you get with Bradford. Not only did the Eagles trade away their future for Wentz, but before he was drafted, the Eagles invested a lot of money in free agent, Chase Daniel. That decision makes Daniel an expensive cap hit for at least the next two seasons as the Eagles gave this career backup $12 million in guaranteed money. All signs point to an Eagles team that was hedging their bets as they keep a good alternative to Bradford on ice.
So let’s roll with the premise that Bradford cannot get it done and that they turn to Wentz at some point this season. There are different trains of thought on how well a rookie quarterback can do his first season and most of them are not favorable. Breakout years like that of RG3 are proof that it’s not out of the question that he could have immediate success. Whether that rings true or not, one thing is working against him. If his number is called in 2016, it’s most likely to come on the heels of the Eagles losing some games first with Bradford. Which means he’s going to have to play from behind. A record of 9-7 won’t be good enough to win the East this year so if the Eagles dig themselves a hole, the best thing they can hope for is some reasons to be optimistic in 2017.
Eli Manning, New York Giants
Despite looking barely old enough to have his learners permit, Eli Manning is 35 years old. A lot has been made about Tony Romo’s mileage, but the Giants quarterback has played in over 50 more games and been knocked to the ground 50 more times. But for all the negative things you can say about Eli, the guy is
reliable dependable durable. He has started 183 straight games dating back to 2004. Now all those starts haven’t been filled with happiness for Giants fans as he has thrown 20+ picks in three seasons over his career, including a disappointing 27 picks as recent as 2013.
Yes, Manning has been suspect at many points in his career, but let’s look at the good side. He’s had five seasons where he’s thrown for over 4,000 yards, including the last two years. The arrival of Odell Beckham Jr. definitely helps his cause. This season, Eli should have Victor Cruz to go with OBJ, as well as their second-round draft pick, Sterling Shepard from Oklahoma. That’s a solid receiving group.
Eli could only help his teams to six wins last year, but with a lot of money thrown at some free agents, the Giants hope to revamp their defense. However, their fate should still rest on the shoulders of Manning. While some Giants fans will toss aside stats and point to team success to highlight how good Manning is – that doesn’t paint as good of a picture as they think. Yes, the Giants have won two Super Bowls over the last decade, but he has a career QB record of 97-86 for a winning percent of only 53% (compared to Romo’s 61.4 %). For the Giants to have any real success, Eli is going to have to string together some good football and that’s not something I would hold my breath for.
Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
While there are an assortment of new NFC East quarterbacks that show up on the leader-board of the QB ratings from year-to-year, one guys seems to always be there. Romo has been in the top 10 every year of his career with the exception of last year and 2010 – both seasons where he was injured and missed extensive time. Even in 2010 when he finished outside the top 10, he had a rating of 94.9, which is still higher than any season Eli Manning has ever had. If there is a proven quarterback among this group, it’s Romo.
But despite how good he is when he’s on the field, he has found himself hurt in each of the last three seasons. The question for Cowboys fans is - can Romo stay healthy? That’s a big question, but if we are doing an upside scenario here, he gets the benefit of the doubt and makes it through the season. A healthy Romo is going to mean great things for this offense. The addition of Ezekiel Elliott will help preserve Romo’s health and keep him in manageable situations. It was a great formula in 2014 and should produce similar results this season.
People can spin it however they want when it comes to what they think of Tony Romo, but if the NFC East is again determined by the play of the quarterback, the Cowboys definitely have the advantage.