No guarantees next season in NFC East

Posted: January 09, 2014

It was an observation from an outsider with some NFL cachet. Before erasing the Eagles from the postseason Saturday night, New Orleans coach Sean Payton surveyed the opposing roster, watched video of coach Chip Kelly's first-year scheme, and declared that the future might be grim for the other three teams in the Eagles' division.

"Clearly," Payton said, "[the Eagles] are in the early stages of this and I think that's tough news for the rest of the NFC East."

Payton, one of the best offensive minds of this generation, was impressed with quarterback Nick Foles' development, running back LeSean McCoy's immense talent, and the what-are-we-waiting-for pace of Kelly's offense. That's all terrific, and the fact that the Eagles won their ninth NFC East title in a season when they were expected by most to finish last made for a fabulous ride, even if it did fall far short of the one professional sports parade down Broad Street that has never taken place.

The belief inside the Eagles' practice facility Monday was that this was the foundation season that will lead to a spectacular future. Dejected by defeat but eager to take the next steps, Kelly said most of his assistants refused to take Sunday off even though they weren't required to show up for work.

"We weren't supposed to be in as coaches, but there were a lot of us in . . . and you're kind of thinking, 'What do we do now?' " Kelly said. "But we have to move forward. We have to get going and there are a lot of things to do. It's an exciting time for us to take the next step and the next challenge. I think we've laid a foundation, but you've got to build something upon that foundation."

At the moment, the foundation looks nice and neat and shiny, but there are very few places in the NFL where construction takes a linear path until the Vince Lombardi Trophy is placed at the top of the skyscraper. To think that the Eagles are about to win four straight NFC East titles the way they did under former coach Andy Reid earlier in this century would be foolish.

Things don't work that way. In the nine seasons since Reid led the Eagles to four straight division titles, the Eagles and New York Giants have each won the division three times, the Dallas Cowboys twice and the Washington Redskins once. No team has won consecutive division titles.

Reid used to warn that "every year is different" at the beginning of each season and it was a prescient view. He's probably still pondering how differently his most recent playoff loss unfolded with the Kansas City Chiefs, but that doesn't change the fact that he is correct about the unpredictability of each season in a league that has so many injuries.

The really good teams and coaches overcome them. We still don't know if Kelly is capable of making things work when the roster is ravaged by injuries. We still don't know if Foles is a one-year wonder or the long-term solution at quarterback.

As recently as last season, the Redskins were the NFC East champions in the same position as the Eagles are now. Robert Griffin III was one of the hottest young quarterbacks in football and the Eagles were a last-place team that had just fired its coach. The roles have been reversed and now Washington has a chance to bring in its answer to Chip Kelly.

The Giants are the only NFC East team to win a Super Bowl title in this century. They've won two of them under coach Tom Coughlin, who remains in place up at the Meadowlands. Like the Eagles, the Giants will show up for their May minicamps feeling as if they have momentum. After an 0-6 start, Coughlin kept his team together and the Giants went the rest of the season 7-3.

For all their issues, the Cowboys beat the Eagles once and were hardly overmatched in the season finale even though they played without quarterback Tony Romo.

The fact that the NFC East was among the weakest divisions in the NFL this season also is meaningless going forward. In four seasons, the NFC West went from the worst to the best division in football.

"Things change in this league year by year," Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. "I don't really think we had a weak division. I think every team in the NFL is great. It's crazy, the parity that you have from year to year among teams in the NFL. We just have to worry about ourselves and us getting better. If we do that, we'll be fine."

There are other things the Eagles can do, too, to keep the good times rolling. General manager Howie Roseman has plenty of salary-cap space for free-agent additions, and the Eagles with Kelly as coach should once again be an attractive landing spot. The Cowboys, by contrast, have an awful cap situation and really do seem to be a team on the decline.

The Eagles are kings of their domain and there are reasons to believe they can retain their crown. You'd have to be crazy, however, to think it's going to be easy.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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