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NFC East beginnings: A look back through the division's history

A little something to keep you busy on a Friday afternoon. Hopefully, we all learn something.

The Polo Grounds
The Polo Grounds

The Philadelphia Eagles have Chip Kelly's genius or goat erratic reputation. The Washington Redskins have their never-ending nickname controversy. The New York Giants are known for being ultra conservative with a traditional no frills mantra. And the Dallas Cowboys have Jerry.

All of these teams have something in common though: each is a member of the National Football Conference's Eastern Division, a.k.a. the NFC East.

Where did each team come from? And how did each club evolve?

Once upon a time, there was a land that played a game they called football which resembled its rugby cousin with crude violence and makeshift scoring. Pro football franchises in this land could be purchased for thousands and were mostly rooted in medium populated towns. Players played both sides of the ball for a full 60-minutes, and if injured were often seen along the sidelines being stitched up while the game was still in progress.

Helmets were only invented because player's ears were being ripped from their heads. Players were paid only hundreds of dollars per game and each held another job.

Equipment was crude and in fact, players supplied their own shoes. Goal posts rested on the goal line while hash marks were non-existent. The passing game was only used sparingly mainly because the ball was still oblong like a rugby ball and would get incredibly heavy when wet. A normal game strategy would be to punt on second-and-long in your own end of the field in order to gain better field position.

In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth, and all living creatures on the earth, in the seas and in the sky. Somewhere between Day Four and Day Six, God created Canton, Ohio.

And in this new land entitled Canton, the demi-gods saw fit to create a new and glorious professional football league christened the American Professional Football Conference, which was soon changed to the American Professional Football Association, which was later changed to the National Football League.

Before long, 100,000-seat stadiums sprang up out of barren fields and swamplands built to embrace excessive crowds. Part-time jobs for players became a thing of the past as salaries topped millions per season. Owners ceased the act of being ticket salesmen as revenues exceeded expectations.

Equipment for players became more reliable and well, the teams supplied all of it. Franchises are now worth in the billions.

There were some problems, however, and odd conditions were undeniable.

For example, for many decades the National Football League wasn't exactly a "national" league. Washington, D.C. laid claim as the southern-most team in the association and for the longest time Chicago was the western franchise. It wasn't until 1946 with the advent of air travel that the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles thus making the league actually a national status.

But how did all this come about, and evolve from wooden bleachers to mega-arenas such as Jerry World?

Thousands of hours of research and stories could be devoted to telling every detail of how this league grew from the sport of soccer (i.e. football) then rugby to the billion-dollar institution it is today. But unfortunately, ample space is only devoted to convey how each NFC East club has evolved: the Cowboys, Eagles, Giants and Redskins.


New York National League Football Company, Inc.

The oldest franchise in the NFC East is the New York Giants. The team was founded in 1925 (the sixth year of the league) by Tim Mara - a businessman, promoter and bookmaker - which was legal in the 1920s. Mara started with an investment of $500 and named the team after baseball's National League Giants.

Back then professional baseball and college football were the kings of sport in the United States whereas pro football was garnered as a meager blood sport -- violent, uncontrollable and played with minimal pride or intensity. So numerous pro football teams called themselves whatever the pro baseball team was (i.e. Bears-Cubs) in order to entice fans.

To distinguish it from the baseball team, the football team was originally incorporated as the "New York National League Football Company, Inc." and changed to "New York Football Giants, Inc." in 1937. Mara owned the team until his death in 1959 when the club was passed on to his sons Wellington and Jack.

The first ever game for the Giants was played on Oct. 4, 1925 as they defeated New Britain 26-0 with an estimated gathering of just over 10,000. The team was in dire financial straits its first season and in jeopardy of folding. Then the Bears, with star player Red Grange in tow, rolled into New York. The game drew 73,000 (20,000 were turned away) to save the team.

In just its third season, the franchise finished with the best record in the league at 11-1-1 and was awarded their first NFL title. But a year later the team floundered, so Mara purchased the entire Detroit Wolverines club; principally to acquire star quarterback Benny Friedman as a fan favorite and merged the two teams under the Giants name.

The Giants have had several abnormal circumstances that helped promote the NFL. In 1930, most of the country wondered aloud that the pro game wasn't up to par with the college teams. The Giants played a squad of Notre Dame All Stars, formed by Knute Rockne who reassembled his Four Horsemen, to raise money for the unemployed of New York City. The game raised $100,000 and is often credited with establishing the legitimacy of professional football.

The Giants were in the middle of a game on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Fans and players were not informed of the events until after the game. In the 1958 NFL Championship Game, the Giants lost to the Colts in what is referred to as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." The contest was paramount to bringing the NFL game into millions of homes via television and is credited with increasing the popularity of the NFL in the United States.

Emlen Tunnell

Before the 1948 season, the Giants signed defensive back Emlen Tunnell, who became the first black player in team history and who would later become the first black player inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The Giants rank third among NFL teams with eight NFL titles behind the Packers (12) and Bears (9). Four of those titles are victories in Super Bowls 21, 25, 42 and 46; including the game in which the Giants defeated the perfect 18-0 New England Patriots. That game would become the third largest betting line upset in Super Bowl history. The Giants have also lost 12 championship games including five of six title games from 1958-1963.

During their history, the Giants have featured 30 Hall of Fame (HOF) players/coaches/front office including Mel Hein, Frank Gifford, Charlie Conerly, Y.A. Tittle and Lawrence Taylor. 12 jerseys have been retired from former greats such as Tuffy Leemans and Phil Simms. From 1954-58, the Giants coaching staff featured Vince Lombardi as offensive coordinator and future Cowboys great Tom Landry as defensive coordinator. Strangely, neither was offered the head coaching position of the Giants.



The Frankford Yellow Jackets were one of the NFL's dominant teams in the 1920s. Based in a section of the northeastern part of Philadelphia, Pa., the Jackets captured the 1926 NFL title. The team began having financial problems and during the 1931 season went bankrupt and closed shop.

Bert Bell and Lud Wray were awarded the franchise and territorial rights along with the assets of the failed Yellow Jackets organization for $2,500. Bell selected the nickname "Eagles" in honor of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deals National Recovery Act, which had the eagle as its symbol. The Eagles began play in the NFL in 1933. The Eagles played their first game on Oct. 15, 1933, a 56-0 loss to the Giants. In that first season, the Eagles wore the blue and yellow uniforms of the Yellow Jackets. Against the Detroit Lions in 2007, the team celebrated the franchise's 75th anniversary by wearing those same uniforms in a 56-21 win.

In those early days, players signed with whatever team paid the biggest contract. Bell proposed an annual college draft to equalize talent across the league, an idea revolutionary to professional sports. In 1936 the first NFL college draft was held. The Eagles held the first pick and drafted halfback Jay Berwanger. In a bit of irony, all nine Eagles draft picks that year never signed with the team.

When World War II broke out, the NFL was at a crossroads. Of the league's players over half remained stateside. With only 18 players left and both owners entered into the Armed Forces, the Los Angeles Rams were forced tosuspend operations completely in 1943.

With pro players scarce and most graduated college players suddenly thrust into the war effort, the Eagles were faced with a similar quagmire as with the Rams. The nearby Pittsburgh Steelers had available only three players, so the two teams simply "merged" for one season and were coined the "Steagles."

Times were tough all over the country. When the Steagles played in New York, each player was given two nickels - one for the subway to the game and the other for the return trip to the hotel.

The Eagles were annually one for the worst teams in the NFL for their first decade of existence. That all changed in the mid 1940's as the club's draft picks began to gel beginning with LSU standout Steve Van Buren taken in the 1944 draft. A stiff defense led the team to three consecutive NFL Championship games from 1947-49, winning the NFL title the latter two years.

In 1960, the Eagles won their third NFL Championship behind QB Norm Van Brocklin and LB/Center Chuck Bednarik. This team became the only team to defeat Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers in any playoff game.

For decades, fans from other NFL teams didn't receive much in the way of Philadelphia's famed "brotherly love." Not only do the Eagles' enthusiasts torment visiting fans, but they once famously booed Santa Claus. Undercover cops patrolled the stands in visiting-team jerseys to incite Philly's thuggish fans into doing something offensive. Things were so bad that the Eagles home venue from 1971-2002, Veterans Stadium, became the only sports arena that had a courtroom on site to prosecute offenders. Cowboy fans vividly recall the behavior of Eagles rooters that cheered when wide receiver Michael Irvin suffered a spinal cord injury in 1999.

Much changed when the club relocated to their new home in 2003, the $500 million Lincoln Financial Field in which the team instituted new security policies. Before fans even enter the stadium, each patron must go through three layers of scrutiny. If the fan is unfit to enter, he or she is given a full refund and escorted from the premises.

The Eagles have won three NFL titles and made two Super Bowl appearances - losing both. 23 men, such as Sonny Jurgensen, Cris Carter and Tommy McDonald, represent the franchise in the Hall of Fame while the club has nine retired jersey numbers. The franchise also has the distinction of being known as the NFL team of the 1940s.


Boston Braves

The Washington Redskins began their NFL journey in Newark, N.J. in 1930. The Newark Tornadoes folded their franchise and were sold back to the NFL. The players and spot in the league would eventually be handed over to new owner George Preston Marshall who wanted to place a team in Boston. As was the case with the Giants, Marshall named his team the "Braves" after the city's baseball team. The following year, he hired coach Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, as well as numerous Native American players. When the club moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park in 1933, Marshall wanted a name change but a continuation of the Native American motif and abandoned the name in favor of "Redskins"; which was retained when the team moved to Washington in 1937.

The Redskins have won five NFL titles, which include three Super Bowls. Forbes Magazine rated the franchise as the fifth most valuable sports franchise and has been valued at $1.56 billion. The club holds the characteristic of being the highest grossing team in the NFL with $345 million in revenue and has also broken the NFL's mark for single-season attendance eight years in a row.

The Braves made their debut on Oct. 2, 1932 losing at home to the Brooklyn Dodgers 14-0. In 1936, as the team captured the Eastern Division Championship, attendance was miniscule for home games. Marshall was so enraged at the lack of fan support he gave up home field for the NFL Championship Game choosing to face the Packers in the neutral site of New York. In that game, the Redskins' play was lackluster and the Packers won the NFL crown. The Redskins would move to Washington the following season and capture the NFL title in 1937.

On Oct. 15, 1939, Redskin flanker Andy Farkas broke loose for what would become a 99-yard touchdown. It remains the longest pass completion in NFL history. In 1941, the Redskins brought pro football on a larger scale for the first time to California as they established their training quarters in San Diego.

Marshall was widely known for his continued stance on segregation in the NFL. He refused to integrate the team despite pressure from "The Washington Post" newspaper as well as the federal government. On March 24, 1961, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall warned Marshall to hire black players or face federal retribution. For the first time in history, the federal government attempted to desegregate a professional sports team. One of the club's first black players, Bobby Mitchell, would be selected to the Pro Bowl.

Early in 1969, Lombardi left Green Bay to become Washington's coach where he broke a string of 14 losing seasons with a record of 7-5-2. Prior to the start of the following season, Lombardi passed away due to cancer.

Over the years, certain groups have undertaken movements to have the nickname changed citing that it is offensive to Native Americans. Others have said that the Redskins name is intended to honor the bravery and dignity of Indian Natives. A 2002 poll commissioned by the magazine "Sports Illustrated" revealed that 75 percent of those Native Americans surveyed had no objection to the nickname.

Several court proceedings occurred in 1992 and also in 2005 regarding the nickname and trademarks associated with the Redskins name. In November 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court declined certiorari and refused to hear the Native American group's appeal. Last season, CBS analyst and former Giants' great Phil Simms refused to call the team by its nickname during a Redskins-Giants matchup. NBC's Tony Dungy also has referred to the club as "that Washington team" during commentaries.

A national campaign by the Oneida Nation produced a commercial released by the National Congress of American Indians about the nickname just before last year's Super Bowl but wasn't aired until halftime of an NBA Finals game in 2014. The commercial can be viewed here:

Owner Daniel Snyder was quoted in 2013 as saying, "We will never change the name of the team." After a follow-up question by a sports reporter, he repeated himself, "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps."

Between 1982 and 1991, the Redskins appeared in the postseason seven times, captured four NFC Conference titles, and won three Super Bowls out of four appearances behind the brilliant mind of coach Joe Gibbs.

The Redskins have 31 players, coaches and management enlisted into the HOF including Art Monk, George Allen and John Riggins. Although the club officially has only retired a single jersey - Sammy Baugh's number 33 - the team has about 10 jersey numbers which are never issued, such as Darrell Green's number 28, or number 65 last worn by Dave Butz.


Dallas Steers

The year was 1958. Among others, there were two wealthy Texas oilmen who desired admission into the 12-team NFL. The NFL for years and years had passed on expansion plans as the owners were a tight-knit bunch and had little interest in letting in outsiders. Oilman Lamar Hunt theorized that he would bring the Chicago Cardinals to Dallas and attempted to purchase the team for two years. Plan "A" would be a bust.

This brought Hunt to Plan "B" which meant starting his own pro football league. He called it the "American Football League" (AFL) and connected with other wealthy men who wanted their own piece of pro football paradise. Hunt's team was dubbed the Dallas Texans and would begin play at the Cotton Bowl in 1960.

Shortly thereafter, the newly-formed AFL announced that a Houston franchise would also compete. This sent shock waves through the NFL hierarchy.

Not only was a second pro football league a reality, but future NFL city sites were being gobbled up by the new league.

Unexpectedly, so that the AFL would not take over Southern cities and develop those regions, the NFL jumped out of its cocoon and immediately awarded a franchise in Dallas as the first-ever expansion club. Devoid of an owner, coaches, players, equipment, stadium deal or any front office personnel, the newly-crowned team was named the Dallas Steers.

Clint Murchinson, Jr. was another oil baron who had attempted to buy an existing NFL team. Along with minority shareholders Toddie Lee, Bedford Wynne and William R. Hawn, Murchinson bought the Steers on January 28, 1960 for $50,000. In fact, it was imperative that the Dallas NFL entry begin play right away for the upcoming 1960 season at the suddenly popular Cotton Bowl.

The bustling city of about 700,000 -- devoid of a pro football team - all of a sudden had a pair of them. And each club was searching for the loyalty of the city. Both leagues viewed the city as a crucial foothold in the larger war.

Murchinson renamed his new team the Dallas Rangers, which was also the name of the area's longtime AAA minor league baseball team. The baseball Rangers had plans to relocate and would vacant the team name.


The new owners subsequently hired Tex Schramm as general manager, Gil Brandt as player personnel director, and Tom Landry from the Giants as their new head coach. As a result of the NFL's timing to thwart the AFL's presence in Dallas, the newly-formed Cowboys had completely missed out on the annual college draft. This placed the team in an immediate disadvantage and was forced to be formed from castoffs of other NFL clubs. On March 13, 1960, the franchise selected 36 players in an expansion draft. Each of the other 12 NFL teams was allowed to protect 25 players from their 36-man roster. During this expansion selection process, the franchise drafted under the title Dallas Rangers.

When the Rangers' plans fell through and the baseball club would remain in Dallas, another name change became a necessity for the NFL franchise. On March 19, 1960 the team was heralded as the "Cowboys." On Sept. 24, 1960, the Cowboys hosted the Steelers and lost 35-28 before 18,500 fans. The team would struggle to a 0-11-1 record in its initial season. The following year, the club selected future All-Pro defensive tackle Bob Lilly in the first round of the college draft.

The Packers spoiled the Cowboys' first postseason appearance following the 1966 season with a 34-27 victory in the NFL Championship Game. The winner held the right to appear in the first Super Bowl. This also marked the start of an NFL-record-setting eight consecutive postseason appearances for the Cowboys.

In all, the Cowboys have won five Super Bowls, earned the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons (20), the first NFL team to send at least 13players to the Pro Bowl (2007 season), the most appearances in the NFC Championship Game (14), the most Super Bowl appearances (8) and the most Super Bowl MVPs (7). The Cowboys are tied for fifth in most NFL championships (with five) behind the Packers (12), Bears (9), Giants (8) and Steelers (6). The franchise also has the distinction of being known as the NFL team of the 1990s.

Currently, there are 22 Cowboys enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Thanksgiving Day would not be the same without visions of the Cowboys on a national TV stage. Football on Thanksgiving Day is actually a tradition since the 1900s; generally used to host championship games since the seasons were shorter. The first owner of the Lions, G. A. Richards, began the tradition of the Thanksgiving Day game as a device to get people to go to home games. The Cowboys began their own tradition in 1966 because the oddity of the weekday game plus the holiday setting created higher attendance.

In 2005, other teams indicated that the Thanksgiving Day games should be rotated amongst member clubs. The NFL adopted a compromise in 2006 that simply added a third contest broadcast exclusively on "NFL Network" while also allowing the Cowboys and Lions to keep their annual home games.

NFC East

Every fan of any NFC East team is aware of the current lineup of the division with these four teams. But, the division was not always so organized and structured as we view it today.

In 1967 with the expansion of the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys, Eagles, Redskins and Saints were placed in the Capitol Division while the Giants resided in the Century Division with long-time rival Cleveland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. With the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, every division had some sort of realignment. Beginning that season, the NFC East comprised of the Giants, Cowboys, St. Louis (and later Arizona) Cardinals, Redskins and Eagles. When the NFL accepted the Cleveland Browns 2 in 1999 and the Houston Texans in 2002, the context of the divisions changed from five teams per division to the current four-team divisional format. This meant the permanent exit of the Cardinals from the NFC East.

The Eagles are the lone club to play in the actual city in which the teams are named as New York plays in East Rutherford, N.J., Washington competes in Landover, Md., while Dallas' games are in Arlington, Texas.

As far as NFL rivalries go, there are several long-tenured such as Packers- Bears, Chiefs-Raiders, Jets-Patriots, Steelers-Ravens, Cowboys-Redskins and Eagles-Giants. This explains why the NFL kept Dallas in an eastern division during the realignment process when clearly all four NFC Central teams are more eastern situated than the city of Dallas. Any NFC East fan can attest to the bitter rivalry between their club and the Cowboys.

(Barry Shuck is a freelance writer who specializes in pro football history. His work has appeared in a variety of publications).