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NFC East Notebook: The transformation of the NFL’s lowliest division

Wentz is benched in Philly, Prescott talks are already heating up and Antonio Gibson will miss Week 14

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In the span of a week, the NFC East transformed from a laughing stock to, perhaps, an inspiration?

The change began Sunday afternoon when the New York Giants rallied to defeat Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks by holding them to a season-low 12 points and dominating the running game. With an injury Daniel Jones, backup QB Colt McCoy managed to lead the Giants to their fourth-straight win and his first since 2014.

But it was Monday’s game between the Washington Football Team and Pittsburgh Steelers that officially earned the NFC East respect. To appreciate what Washington accomplished at Heinz Field requires taking a step back.

The Football Team just endured its most challenging offseason in the history of the franchise. Facing pressure from major financial backers and amidst growing social unrest around the country, Washington retired its 87-year-old nickname, “Redskins,” and adopted a new title. All “Redskins” imagery and signage disappeared. The statue of former owner George Preston Marshall, the last owner to integrate an NFL team, was removed from outside RFK Stadium.

Amidst this public re-branding, The Washington Post published stories detailing the harassment allegations of up to 40 former female employees of the Football Team. It was an expose that revealed a startlingly broken culture and environment that seemed to require years to fix.

But in the background lurked new head coach Ron Rivera and third-string veteran quarterback Alex Smith. Rivera adopted the problems of a franchise that he was not responsible for and became the face of a new beginning. And then in August, Rivera revealed that he had cancer in his lymph nodes. The plan? To continue coaching.

Rivera remained present at practices and never missed a single game while undergoing treatment. He was more tired some days than others, but he continued to coach. Then, on Oct. 26, Rivera rang the bell, signaling the end of his cancer treatment.

At this time, Washington had begun riding its carousel of quarterbacks. Dwayne Haskins Jr. was benched after Week 4 and Kyle Allen took over under center only to suffer an injury in Week 9. With Haskins demoted to third-string, Smith’s name was called and No. 11 jogged out to the field for the first time since suffering from his gruesome leg-injury in Nov. 2018.

Smith, who many thought would never play football again, has led Washington to a three-game winning streak that reached its pinnacle when the Football Team rallied to defeat the previously-unbeaten Steelers. It was a comeback within a season of comebacks.

And it sent a signal to the rest of the league: the NFC East is back.

Now, let’s dive into the headlines around the league this week.

Philadelphia Eagles

Carson Wentz was the last starting quarterback still standing in the NFC East. He made it farther than the rest, but after leading the league in sacks and turnovers, his time is finally up.

The Eagles removed Wentz during their loss to the Packers Sunday and brought in Jalen Hurts. When Wentz was under center, Philly ran 36 plays for 127 yards and three points. Once Hurts entered the game, the Eagles ran 24 plays for 131 yards and six points.

It therefore came as no surprise when the Eagles announced that they were going to bench Wentz and start Hurts against the New Orleans Saints.

Though Hurts is just a rookie and has very little NFL playing time under his belt, the switch immediately makes the Eagles more interesting. Admittedly, the bar was already low, but Hurts’ level of play has lasting ramifications for Philly.

Our colleagues at Bleeding Green Nation detailed the potential Hurts outcomes:

HURTS PLAYS REALLY WELL — If he comes in an absolutely lights it up, the Eagles have to at least consider making him their new long-term starting quarterback. Right? And by “lights it up” I’m talking about looking like a total stud and the Eagles winning out. To be clear, probably not a likely outcome.

HURTS PLAYS MEH — It he looks merely “fine” then that doesn’t really move the needle. Hurts could very well look better than Wentz and yet not nearly good enough to replace him as a franchise quarterback. This is probably the most likely outcome.

HURTS PLAYS REALLY POORLY — Can’t write him off entirely given how the surrounding situation isn’t ideal. But the Eagles will at least know that he’s not the answer to their quarterback conundrum. I’d be surprised if Hurts looks flat out terrible and doesn’t have any positive moments.

It is also important to consider Wentz’s contract. Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million contract that extends through the 2024 season. Not starting him means a big financial hit for the Eagles. But if Hurts looks like he can set Philly back on a winning path, the contract ramifications might not only be worth it, but necessary.

Dallas Cowboys

As the Cowboys continue to ride out a throwaway season and abandon any notion of improvement in 2020, attention is beginning to shift to the future, namely to their quarterback situation. A 3-9 record through 12 games translates to a high draft pick and the Cowboys have to start thinking about what they might want to do with it.

Dak Prescott is playing on the franchise tag this season as both parties were unable to reach a long-term agreement in the offseason. One of Prescott’s greatest assets was the fact that he had never been injured. That has since changed, but ESPN’s Adam Schefter posied his own theory for why Prescott will still head into contract negotiations with leverage.

The reason? The sheer number of suitors.

“Washington. How much would Washington... to cripple its division rival and take its quarterback and trot out Dak Prescott? How about Chicago? How about Indianapolis? How about Tampa Bay as a successor to Tom Brady? How about New Orleans as a successor to Drew Brees? How about San Francisco? How about any one of these teams? And so the fact that there are so many options tells you that Dak Prescott has got an enormous amount of leverage because he can do that. He can say ‘Okay, I’m not going to re-sign here after a year. So you might as well move on from me.’ There are a lot of different ways that he can play this out, that the Cowboys can play this out. By the way during a pandemic if the cap is going down, can they afford to franchise Dak Prescott to the tune of $37.8M, $38M, whatever it may be.”

Prescott is poised to be one of the biggest stories of the offseason. Control has shifted from the Cowboys to Prescott himself, despite him missing most of the season. Remember, before Prescott went down, he was on track to break franchise records. Perhaps other teams saw enough of Prescott in his abbreviated season to want more - and be willing to pay him for it.

Washington Football Team

Washington’s emerging star back Antonio Gibson suffered a toe injury on his first carry against the Steelers Monday and he did not return to the game. It has since been announced that Gibson will not be available for the team’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Gibson had emerged as a prolific runner for Washington leading up to his injury. The rookie recorded 416 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the last six weeks. Three of those TD’s were against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Without Gibson for most of last week’s game, Washington finished with just 45 rushing yards.

The 49ers have lost four of their last five games, but their run defense continues to be ranked in the top 10. They are ranked No. 9 in the league in rushing yards allowed per game with 106.4. An already-depleted Washington running game, therefore, does not match up well against the 49ers.

San Francisco is also ranked 10th in the league in passing yards allowed. Last week against the Steelers, Washington was most productive in the passing game, racking up 273 yards.

Will the loss of one of Washington’s most effective offensive weapons work against them or will be the Football Team be able to reach new depths? A win over the Steelers suggests that anything is possible but consistency over time is more revealing than one surprise upset.