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NFC East Notebook: Tanking in Dallas, getting healthier in Philly and starting a new QB in Washington

Let’s dive into the news around the division this week

New York Giants v Washington Football Team Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

From the start of the 2020 season, the NFL accepted that coronavirus cases were going to emerge. Star players have needed to quarantine, games were played on Tuesday’s to accommodate outbreaks and entire position groups have been ravaged by the virus.

Up until this week, the league has taken these obstacles in stride, continuing to play and refusing to be stopped.

With the postseason approaching though, the NFL decided that some fundamental changes are necessary. The league announced this week that owners have unanimously approved amending the postseason from 14 to 16 teams should all meaningful games not get played in 17 or 18 weeks. The league had already approved adding an extra week on the season, canceling the 2021 Pro Bowl. This would extend the postseason by a week but allow the Super Bowl to still be played on Feb. 7.

“Today’s resolution is part of our contingency planning should it be needed,” commissioner Roger Goodell said.

This plan coincides with an increase in COVID-19 cases around the country in recent weeks. Around the league, a total of 56 employees, including 15 players and 41 staff members tested positive for the virus between Nov. 1-7. That is more than twice the total of any other period, including when there were 26 positive tests from Sept. 27-Oct. 3.

Some important considerations to keep in mind if this playoff format ends up proving necessary.

The expansion to 16 teams will only occur if meaningful games are canceled due to the virus. Games that play a determining factor in whether or not teams make the playoffs are considered meaningful.

Additionally, under this new format, no team would get a bye. The NFL would seed the teams 1 through 8 in each conference, with the highest-seeded team playing the lowest-seeded team (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, 4 vs. 5). Then, in the second round, the highest remaining seed would play the lowest remaining seed in typical postseason fashion.

Finally, division winners would still get home games.

Amidst this potential change in the playoff structure, another measure in the league was also implemented, but largely overlooked.

Owners completed a 10-month discussion aimed at increasing the number of minority coaching candidates around the league. They approved a resolution to reward teams with draft picks if one of their minority coaches or personnel people is hired to be a head coach or general manager. Teams will receive two third-round compensatory draft picks if someone from their organization is hired or promoted to a head-coaching or general manager position.

Hopefully this measure has the intended impact. But the fact that the league needs to provide incentives to hire minorities suggests that the problem is already deeply embedded.

Now, let’s check out the headlines around the division this week.

Dallas Cowboys

To tank or not to tank? That is the question.

Following the Cowboys’ 23-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football in which Dallas started the infamous Ben DiNucci in the wake of Andy Dalton’s positive coronavirus test, it appeared that their season was effectively over.

However, the Cowboys battled the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers in a close contest this past week, taking a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter. DiNucci was back on the bench and quarterback Garrett Gilbert was 21 of 38 for 243 yards, one touchdown and one interception. They would go on to lose, 24-19, but the game was much closer than anyone expected.

The Cowboys are in their bye week so this week will not provide any additional insight into the tanking question.

On Monday though, Cowboys VP Stephen Jones was asked about the possibility of Dallas having a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and if they would consider taking a quarterback.

“Dak’s our quarterback,” Jones said. “We’re so fired up about him and him leading us into the future.”

His father, Jerry, echoed the same thoughts the next day.

“Yes, you ask me if it’s crazy to bring the idea up? And I’ve answered it, yes. It’s not the thing to be talking about at all. Dak is our quarterback.”

So the Cowboys are not (outwardly) showing interest in drafting a top QB, which renders the possibility of tanking less likely. Mathematically, Dallas still has a chance to make the playoffs with seven games left. But whichever team in the NFC East makes the postseason is likely to be eliminated in the first round. This could mean the difference between a top five pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and somewhere closer to No. 19. The NFC East has been the laughing stock of the 2020 season as the four teams have nine combined wins entering Week 10. And the division has also received criticism because one of these bad teams gets the chance to advance to the playoffs, which is not fair to other more qualified teams around the league.

But whichever team does make the postseason will be in the unfortunate predicament of (in all likelihood) losing early and getting stuck with a higher draft pick that has a lesser chance of improving the quality of the team overall.

It remains to be seen if Dallas will focus on the present or invest in the future.

Philadelphia Eagles

Injuries have decimated the Eagles all season but, with the help of a bye week last week, they are slowly getting healthier and remain the favorite to win the NFC East.

In the team’s first official injury report released Wednesday, not a single player on the 53-man roster missed practice due to injury.

After missing the last two games, running back Miles Sanders is expected to be able to play this week. Offensive tackle Lane Johnson was also listed as limited and might be able to take the field in the Eagles’ key division matchup against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

Notably, wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey was listed as a full participant, practicing fully for the first time in 2020. If he can get going alongside Travis Fulgham and Jalen Reagor, the Eagles would suddenly have strong weapons for Carson Wentz to throw to on offense.

These elite receivers will make no difference though if Wentz can’t eliminate turnovers. The QB leads the NFL with 12 interceptions and 16 total turnovers. In the team’s last game against the hobbled Cowboys, Wentz threw two interceptions and fumbled twice. He leads the league with 23 turnover-worthy plays, 10 more than any other quarterback. His opponent on Sunday, Daniel Jones, is also no stranger to turnovers. But Jones will be coming off of his first game all season in which he did not turn the ball over.

The Eagles defeated New York by just one point in the last meeting between the two teams. The question heading into Sunday’s matchup is: Will a healthier Philly team be able to hold on to sweep the season series against the Giants or will Wentz throw the game away?

Washington Football Team

Washington quarterback Kyle Allen left last Sunday’s game against the Giants in the first quarter after being slide tackled by Jabrill Peppers. Allen is expected to undergo surgery in the coming weeks on his dislocated ankle and small fracture, according to ESPN.

In Allen’s absence, Washington will start its third signal-caller this season Sunday against the 3-5 Detroit Lions. Alex Smith, who threw his first touchdown last week since suffering from a gruesome leg injury in Nov. 2018 will get the start under center. Former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins has been promoted to backup after he was demoted all the way down to third-string after the team’s Week 4 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Smith was, understandably, rusty in Sunday’s contest. He finished with three interceptions in the game, which proved to be the difference-maker. But he also helped Washington score 20 points, 17 of which came in the second half. He finished 24 of 32 for 325 yards. This week, he will get the chance to prepare knowing that he is the starter - a fact that many would not have believed possible two years ago. His start on Nov. 15 is almost two years to the day of his injury (Nov. 18, 2018).

Meanwhile, Haskins is also getting another chance. The coaching staff has never doubted Haskins’ raw talent but they want to see the sophomore QB become more of a student of the game.

“A lot of times, guys will rely on their great talent,” coach Ron Rivera said earlier this week. “That talent will get you by for a while, but there’s a point in everybody’s career where everything catches up to talent. The only thing that separates it are the guys that work the hardest.”

Even when Smith was the third-string QB, he was often one of the first players in the building in the morning. The comeback he made from his injury is testament enough to his work ethic. Now, Haskins gets the chance to learn from the veteran. Haskins will get to observe how Smith prepares both on the field and in the classroom for a game.

It remains unclear exactly how long Allen will be out. But his absence provides a second chance for two quarterbacks who, in their own right, greatly wanted one.