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While the NFC East carousel continues, the Cowboys are still trending up

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During a time where some fans are beating the drum for changes, the Cowboys just need to keep doing what they’re doing.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Recently, my colleague, Tom Ryle wrote piece about how the Cowboys have struggled to stack two consecutive good seasons on top of each other. It has been over 20 years since the team has posted back-to-back double-digit wins seasons. That’s an ice cold drink of reality that most Cowboys fans don’t want any part of. We can point to things like free agency doing it’s thing to maintain competitive balance in the NFL. We can talk about how some bad GM decisions by Jerry Jones have pulled the legs out from underneath the Cowboys during the Tony Romo years. Those things certainly have merit, but there is another factor that has been a thorn in the Cowboys side as they try to sustain consistency - their division.

The teams in the NFC East have been a fickle mistress of competitiveness in recent years. One year a team will emerge from nowhere to impress all the onlookers, only to slip back into oblivion shortly thereafter. By now, we’ve all heard the story about how it’s been over a dozen years since we’ve seen a repeat division winner. You have to go all the way back to 2004 to a Donovan McNabb-led Eagles team to find the last instance where an NFC East has won the division in back-to-back seasons. On the other side of the spectrum is the AFC East, which has been completely dominated by the New England Patriots. We all know how great they are, but it doesn’t hurt that their division foes have been hot garbage for the last 15 years. Only once since 2003 has a team other than New England won the division.

The NFC East however, presents quite a few more obstacles. Since Jason Garrett took over as coach in 2011, we’ve seen some weird stuff happening with our divisional foes. Teams have made some drastic moves and taken some huge risks that have produced short-term dividends, only to have severe consequences later. While each team has taken a turn winning the division since 2011, take a look at the coaching turnover and fallout from such radical changes:

Which one of these organizations looks more appealing to you? In just a six-year window, you can see that every single NFC East opponent has spent half of those years with a losing record. Dallas, on the other hand, has only had one season in this span where they were eliminated going into their Week 17 season finale (2015). You don’t need to be a mathematician to see which fan base has had more to be excited about during that time.

There have been a total of nine different head coaches in the NFC East during this span. The Eagles shook things up when they hired Chip Kelly, who produced their last divisional title, but that party ended abruptly. Kelly’s stamp on the team wasn’t a good one as he dealt away LeSean McCoy for his former Oregon Ducks player, Kiko Alonso. He would supplement the running game by investing a lot of money in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews in free agency. Kelly is gone now and so are those three players. Philadelphia made another big move when they traded a lot of draft stock to move up to #2 overall to select Carson Wentz. This move is paying off well so far as they currently have the best record in the NFL.

After the Giants suffered three straight losing seasons from 2013-2015, they fired Tom Coughlin and replaced him with Ben McAdoo last year. They also tried to circumvent years of terrible drafting by investing a lot of money in free agency to revamp the defense. At first, it looked like a great move as they won 11 games last season. But now, the Giants have only one win on the year and everyone has wondered where this great defense has gone? The Giants have the fifth worst defense in terms of points allowed and have the worst points differential in the NFC.

The Redskins rolled the dice when they traded away a lot of draft stock to acquire Robert Griffin III in 2014. Again, this move looked brilliant out of the gate after RG3 led them to a division title his rookie season. But this move turned out costly when Griffin wasn’t able to be the franchise quarterback they were hoping for as the Redskins would finish dead last in the division the following two seasons. Griffin would be replaced by Kirk Cousins. Washington would regain the NFC East crown with a 9-7 record in 2015, but that was only because everyone else in the division struggled.

Speaking of 2015, that is the only losing season for the Cowboys in the Garrett era. Of course we all know what happened that season that played a huge part in this. The Cowboys would vow to right the ship when it comes to having a viable replacement should Romo get hurt again and that is exactly what happened the following season. Dak Prescott turned out to not only be a good replacement for Romo when he got hurt, but also a replacement for Romo when he was healthy. Prescott would lead Dallas to 13 wins last year and have the best rookie performance of a QB in NFL history.

But the Cowboys once again find themselves in a situation where repeating as division champs is not likely to happen. They are currently 5-4 and that’s not terrible. They are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Sure, there have been some injuries that have caused All-Pro players to miss time and that certainly presents challenges. When you look at the three major injuries in 2015 that caused them to struggle (Romo, Dez Byrant, and Orlando Scandrick) and compare them to the players that have missed games in 2017 (Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, and Ezekiel Elliott), you can definitely understand why the team isn’t just rolling through the league like they did a year ago. But while injuries affect team performance, you also have to look around the division and recognize what other teams are doing.

Every season the Cowboys play almost 40% of their games against divisional opponents. Despite the fallout teams go through by trying to flip the script quickly, these radical changes also do produce hot teams. That means the Cowboys are always up against a new divisional opponent riding a wave of goodness. In 2014, they overcame the Kelly-effect to win the division, which saw the Eagles organization come crashing down shortly thereafter. Last year, they outlasted the Giants despite New York’s defensive upgrades and we all know what’s happening to them this season. And now, it’s Philadelphia again that is the team to beat in the division.

Despite recent history, there is nothing that guarantees that the Eagles’ success is doomed in upcoming seasons. But what we can feel good about is that Dallas has built a team that it sustainable. They have a young team and with each new season they continue to fill more and more holes. The Cowboys don’t need to act in desperation and fire coaches or make some ridiculous free agent signing to grab that “one player away” guy. What they need to do is stay the course. Don’t get caught up in what other teams are doing. As Garrett says repeatedly throughout the year, “focus on the things you can control” and that is exactly what they’re doing.

It can be wearing on fans because we live in the moment and scratch our head whenever another NFC East team emerges from darkness to all of a sudden become a threat. But remember - those things don’t last. At some point, the Cowboys are going to have everything together and when that happens, big-time success is coming and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.