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NFC East Notebook: Controversy in Washington and a gift for each team this holiday season

Let’s check out the headlines from around the division this past week

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

By day, sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. put together a respectable performance against the Seattle Seahawks in the team’s Week 15 loss. He was 38 of 55 for 295 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The offense was largely absent for the first three quarters but Haskins managed to lead the team down the field twice in the fourth quarter, including one 96-yard scoring drive, to give the Washington Football Team a fighting chance.

By night however, Haskins was different.

Hours after the Football Team’s loss, Haskins attended his girlfriend’s birthday party at a hotel where strippers were present. He was not wearing a mask. The incident marked the second time Haskins has violated COVID-19 protocols this season.

Haskins has since been fined $40,000, according to ESPN. He has also been removed from the role of team captain.

But the Haskins story had another important impact. As fans continued to process the news, which broke Tuesday, additional reports began to circulate in Washington about an unrelated, but more important matter.

The Washington Football Team reportedly settled a sexual misconduct allegation regarding owner Daniel Snyder with a former employee in 2009.

The story developed in waves. The New York Times reported last week that such a settlement existed. The Washington Post received a copy of the agreement and said it was for $1.6 million. The Post reported that the incident happened on Snyder’s plane when returning from the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas.

In court records filed Monday concerning growing tension among the team’s owners, Snyder’s business partners called the woman’s allegation “a serious accusation of sexual misconduct,” per the Post.

It is no secret that the minority owners of the Washington Football Team have expressed interest in selling their shares. Their discontent was first reported over the offseason amidst growing societal and financial pressure to drop the “Redskins” name and logo - a decision that Snyder once said in a 2013 interview, that he would “NEVER” make.

According to the Post, the female employee made “certain allegations” in April 2009, and was later fired. Neither Snyder nor the team acknowledged any wrongdoing in the agreement.

The news comes in the wake of sexual assault allegations by at least 40 former female employees and at least two female journalists as reported by the Post in a series of stories over the summer. The NFL has since been conducting an investigation into the team’s workplace environment.

It is easy to let this news, with its legal jargon and layered complications, get buried underneath the drama of Haskins’ latest stunt. But it is also irresponsible. Haskins is a 23-year old kid. Meanwhile, Snyder is a 22-year NFL owner. Haskins has been punished financially with a fine and publicly humiliated in the removal of his captain-ship. And he deserves those consequences. But what about Snyder? It is long past time for the NFL to step in and make a change.

Now, we leave the bad news behind us. In the holiday spirit, let’s pause to consider one gift for each team that has provided some positivity in an otherwise challenging year.

Dallas Cowboys: Backups

With a 41-33 win over the San Francisco 49ers last week, the Cowboys have vaulted themselves back into playoff contention. With a 5-9 record, they are in second place in the division. The Giants, of course, have the same record but are in third place due to a loss to the Cowboys in Week 5.

Dallas’ renewed spting is thanks in large part to the team’s gift of the season: its backup players. The Cowboys have been decimated by injuries this season, beginning with quarterback Dak Prescott. But the loss of Prescott has forced the team to discover solid backup quarterbacks. Andy Dalton is likely to move on to free agency, but Garrett Gilbert had a strong start in Week 19, leading the Cowboys to just a five-point loss to the then-undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.

Depth has emerged in other position groups as well.

Tight end Dalton Schultz was forced to step up in the absence of Blake Jarwin and he has recorded 53 catches for 524 yards and four touchdowns this season. The offensive line had to weather the injuries of All-Pro linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, as well as La’el Collins. With all three on injured reserve, backups Brandon Knight, Conner McGovern, and Terence Steele have together become a solid offensive line.

Add to the injured list running back Ezekiel Elliott, who missed the first game of his career due to injury this season. Tony Pollard started last week against the 49ers and turned in the best game of his career with two rushing touchdowns.

Chances remain slim that the Cowboys makes the playoffs this season, but the future looks promising with notable starters returning healthy and additional depth at numerous position groups.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Hurts

Sometimes the best gift are things that we want. Sometimes, they are things that we need.

The Eagles needed help at the quarterback position. Carson Wentz leads the league in interceptions with 15 and sacks with 50. He has consistently struggled all season, looking uncomfortable and out of sorts in the pocket.

Doug Pederson finally made a change two weeks ago when he elected to start rookie Jalen Hurts against the New Orleans Saints. Hurts was 17 of 30 for 167 yards and one passing touchdown while also tallying 18 rushing attempts for 106 yards, leading the Eagles to an upset 24-21 win. The former Oklahoma Sooner started again last week against the Arizona Cardinals. Though the Eagles lost, Hurts had a strong performance, finishing 24 of 44 for 338 yards and three touchdowns. He added another 63 yards on the ground.

The Eagles’ decision to draft Hurts with the No. 53 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft was shocking and controversial. But right now, it’s looking like Philly made the right choice. It’s hard to imagine the Eagles abandoning Wentz’s expensive contract, but the signal-caller has already expressed a desire to be traded if he is not the starter.

Pederson announced earlier this week that Hurts will start against the Cowboys Sunday. And after a disappointing Wentz for 13 weeks, Hurts has been a gift to watch.

Washington Football Team: Ron Rivera

In Ron Rivera’s opening press conference, he described a culture change in Washington. He spoke about creating a family.

As Rivera prepares to face his former team of nine years Sunday in the Carolina Panthers with playoff implications on the line, it feels fitting to reflect on his time in Washington. Since his arrival, the state of the Football Team has been in flux. The team dropped its 87-year old moniker, is being investigated for sexual assault claims and is in the throes of very public ownership disputes. Factor in Rivera’s personal battle with cancer amidst a pandemic, and the transition gets even bumpier.

But Rivera does not dwell in the past. His forward-looking attitude has put his team in a position to control their own destiny and clinch its first playoff berth since 2015.

“If this would have been our opener, believe me, this would have been a highly emotional game” Rivera said in a press conference earlier this week. “But it’s not. The consequence of this game is really about this team, this organization trying to be relevant and trying to take a step forward.”

The culture has not yet been re-built in Washington. But there have been flashes of what could be. In Rivera’s insistence at not missing a game when he was battling cancer. In veteran Alex Smith’s heroic return. In the poise and talent of young players like Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson. In a convincing beating of the division-rival Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. In a defeat of the previously unbeaten.

“One of the things I tell the guys is ‘Be where your feet are,’” Rivera said. “Whether you’re here at the facility, you’re out at the field at practice, you’re in meetings, or you’re at home. Wherever you are, just be there wholeheartedly.”