What Teams Can Learn About Building Super Bowl Contenders From the NFC East’s Awakening
The days of the NFC East being the laughingstock of the conference and NFL are over as the division is set to represent three of the four teams left in the NFC’s divisional round.
NFC East teams have a combined 83.3% chance to represent the conference in the Super Bowl based on our playoff projections. This comes just two years after the 7-9 then-Washington Football Team led the division in 2020. From 2018-20, no NFC East team won more than 10 games.
Now, the No. 1 seeded Philadelphia Eagles will take on the No. 6 New York Giants on Saturday night, while the No. 5 Dallas Cowboys will try to fend off the No. 2 San Francisco 49ers on Sunday evening.
The AFC West, not the NFC East, was expected to be the NFL’s premier division this season. There was debate whether the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos could be the best division in the history of the NFL or at least the best group of QBs in one division in league history.
The Chiefs are the only team in the AFC West who remain in the playoffs, however, The Chargers lost in the wild-card round, and the Raiders and Broncos missed the playoffs altogether. The Chargers fired multiple assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, this week. The Raiders are expected to move on from quarterback Derek Carr this offseason, and the Broncos have already fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett. Denver’s decision to trade for QB Russell Wilson is currently looking like one of the worst deals in league history.
The NFC East, on the other hand, has far surpassed expectations this season. NFL Media ranked the divisions entering the season, and the AFC West, unsurprisingly, came out on top. The NFC East came in at fifth out of the NFL’s eight divisions.
Let’s take a look at how the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants got here, and what other NFL teams can learn about building Super Bowl contenders.
Head Coach: Nick Sirianni
The Eagles made the somewhat controversial decision to fire head coach Doug Pederson after finishing 4-11-1 during the 2020 season just three years after he led the team to a Super Bowl 52 victory over the New England Patriots. Pederson took a year off from the NFL, was hired as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars ast offseason and immediately took the franchise from worst in the AFC South to first and a wild-card round win. The Jaguars will play the Chiefs in the divisional round on Saturday afternoon.
Sirianni held the post of Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator prior to being hired away by the Eagles. He had worked his way up through the offensive coaching ranks since 2009 with the Chiefs and Chargers as a wide receivers coach and quarterbacks coach. Based on how Pederson coached with the Jaguars this season, there’s a case to be made that perhaps he never should have been fired in the first place. The move has still worked out very well for the Eagles since Sirianni has a 23-12 record as Philly’s head coach. He’s the current favorite to win NFC Coach of the Year.
Quarterback: Jalen Hurts
Hurts was selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Eagles. As an NFL MVP candidate with a $1.6 million salary cap hit, Hurts has one of the league’s best bargain contracts. That’s allowed Philadelphia to spend extravagantly and try to go all in while its QB is still on a rookie contract. It would have been much more difficult for Philadelphia to acquire wide receiver A.J. Brown, edge defenders Haason Reddick and Robert Quinn, cornerback James Bradberry, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and retain center Jason Kelce and defensive lineman Fletcher Cox without Hurts’ contract situation.
Hurts remains under his rookie contract next season. Even if he’s given a well-deserved extension this offseason, he’ll still have one of the most affordable cap hits in the NFL in 2023. He ranks fourth in QB EVE (efficiency versus expected in anticipated passing situations) this season. He’s improved as a passer every year dating back to his time in college.
Sirianni gave up play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Shane Steichen this season. Steichen, who came up through the ranks with the Chargers and Cleveland Browns, is unsurprisingly one of the hottest head coaching candidates this cycle.
The Eagles employed play action on 31.4% of Hurts’ drop backs this season, ranking seventh out of 33 qualified passers. Hurts had a 12.2% deep passing rate, ranking 14th. He was pressured on just 30.1% of drop backs – the 11th-lowest rate in the NFL. Hurts’ 123 rushing attempts ranked first among non-running backs and his 13 rushing touchdowns were third overall. He ranked third among QBs in scrambles as the majority of his rushing attempts were designed runs.
It helps to have a top-tier offensive line and quality playmakers in Brown, Devonta Smith, Miles Sanders and Dallas Goedert, but Hurts’ ability as a passer and runner opens up the possibilities of Philadelphia’s offense.
The Eagles had one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. They dropped back on just 56.7% of offensive plays, ranking in the 31st percentile in the league, and passed the ball in expected passing situations just 78.5% of the time, ranking in the 34th percentile. They passed 52.2% of the time in neutral situations, however, ranking in the 84th percentile. Philadelphia ranked fourth in overall EVE, fifth in passing EVE and sixth in rushing EVE during the regular season.
The Eagles made a savvy move to trade for Brown last offseason, but they’ve also drafted well over the years on offense. Hurts, Sanders, Smith, Goedert and offensive linemen Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson, Jason Kelce, Isaac Seumalo and Lane Johnson all are homegrown talent. And Eagles GM Howie Roseman has done a good job of signing players he drafted to contract extensions to ensure they stay in Philadelphia.
The strength of defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s defense is in its pass rush and coverage abilities. The Eagles rank third in pressure rate this season and let up the third-lowest passer rating while finishing fourth in interceptions.
Gannon, who coached with the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and Colts while working his way through the NFL ranks, is another hot head coaching candidate. Philly’s defense ranked sixth in EVE, third in EVE against the pass and 20th in EVE against the run during the regular season. The unit has been better in run defense since signing Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph and getting rookie Jordan Davis back from injured reserve.
Roseman has also done a nice job of finding defensive talent through the draft in selecting defensive linemen Fletcher Cox, Jordan Davis, Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat, linebacker T.J. Edwards and slot cornerback Avonte Maddox. But the Eagles also filled out their defense with smart outside additions in Bradberry, Reddick, Quinn, Gardner-Johnson and cornerback Darius Slay.
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy
The Cowboys hired McCarthy as their head coach after firing Jason Garrett during the 2020 offseason. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk reported this offseason that the Cowboys initially wanted to acquire Sean Payton from the New Orleans Saints as their next head coach after firing Garrett. The Saints turned the offer down, and McCarthy was hired.
McCarthy won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. He took a year off in 2019 before being hired by Dallas. Unlike Sirianni and Giants head coach Brian Daboll, he had NFL head coaching experience before coming to Dallas.
Quarterback: Dak Prescott
Similar to the Eagles, the Cowboys found their quarterback after the first round of the NFL Draft. Unlike Philadelphia, however, Dallas is paying its quarterback near-top dollar at the position, though Prescott’s contract is looking like a bigger bargain after each new QB deal. Prescott was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He signed a four-year, $160 million contract extension in March of 2021. Prescott has the eighth-highest QB cap hit this season. He has the second-highest cap hit for a quarterback next season, even though QB contracts are reaching and exceeding $50 million APY.
Prescott struggled with turnovers this season, but he still ranked sixth in well-thrown percentage and QB EVE during the regular season. He did not turn the ball over in Dallas’ wild-card round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.
The Carolina Panthers have requested to interview Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore during this hiring cycle. Dallas ranked seventh in offensive EVE, 11th in passing EVE and 17th in rushing EVE during the regular season. Despite having Prescott – though he missed five games with injury – the Cowboys ranked sixth with a 45.4% rush rate. They run the ball 22.6% of the time when a pass is expected, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. In neutral situations, they run the ball 57.5% of the time, the 13th-highest rate.
Dallas utilized play action on 27.0% of Prescott’s drop backs this season, ranking 13th among qualified QBs. He was under pressure on 31.0% of his drop backs, ranking 21st. Prescott threw deep on 10.8% of drop backs, the 19th-highest rate among qualified QBs.
Moore was promoted from Cowboys QB coach to OC in 2019. He went straight from being a backup QB to the coaching staff.
The Cowboys allowed wide receiver Cedrick Wilson and offensive lineman Connor Williams to leave in free agency and traded wideout Amari Cooper to the Browns, but they’ve still been able to keep up offensively. The Cowboys have drafted well with Prescott, running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, wide receivers CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, tight end Dalton Schultz and offensive linemen Tyler Smith, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Tyler Biadasz and Connor McGovern. Among key contributors on offense, offensive tackle Jason Peters is one of the only players not drafted by the Cowboys.
The Cowboys ranked 10th in defensive EVE, eighth in EVE against the pass and ninth in EVE against the run during the regular season. They currently rank second in pass defense EVE in expected passing situations, though they only rank 29th in EVE against the pass in expected rushing situations and in the 12th percentile in neutral situations.
The team’s pass rush, led by Micah Parsons, ranks seventh in pressure rate and Dallas has allowed the 10th-lowest passer rating this season.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is the betting favorite to be the Denver Broncos’ next head coach. He took over as defensive coordinator of the Cowboys one year after being fired as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
The Cowboys drafted most of their top defenders, including Parsons, cornerback Trevon Diggs, safety Donovan Wilson, linebacker Leighton Vander Esche, edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong and defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa, but safeties Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse and linebacker Anthony Barr came from outside the organization.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Head Coach: Brian Daboll
Daboll took a long and winding road on the way to replacing Joe Judge as New York’s head coach. Daboll, like Judge, started his NFL coaching career with the Patriots. He had stints as the QB coach of the New York Jets and served as offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Chiefs before returning to the Patriots as tight ends coach from 2013-16. He then spent a year at Alabama as offensive coordinator and QBs coach and four seasons as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills before being hired away by the Giants and leading New York to a 9-7-1 record just one year after they finished 4-13 under Judge. He had a longer career path than Sirianni to reach the top gig.
Quarterback: Daniel Jones
Jones was drafted sixth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft and is already on his third NFL head coach. The Giants have been patient with Jones through it all, and it’s paid off with his best NFL season. What they didn’t do, however, was pick up his fifth-year option last offseason. So now New York must decide if it’s going to franchise its starting quarterback, sign him to a long-term extension or allow him to walk in free agency.
It would be difficult to let Jones leave after leading the Giants to the postseason, but it would also be understandable if New York is hesitant to sign him to a big-money deal.
Jones ranked fifth in well-thrown percentage during the regular season, though he also had the lowest average air yards at 6.47. His pickable pass rate was the 15th lowest in the NFL, but he had 17 pickable passes to just five interceptions. So there’s been some degree of luck to Jones’ low turnover rate this season. He’s also just 30th in QB EVE among those with 100 plays in expected passing situations. Jones does add a ton of value with his legs as well, ranking fifth among non-QBs with 76 carries. He has 780 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. The majority of his runs have come on scrambles.
The Giants’ EVE rankings aren’t great as they finished the regular season just 22nd in offensive EVE, 25th in passing EVE and 12th in rushing EVE. However, it says a lot about their ability to run the football that they rank third in rushing EVE in expected rushing situations.
New York runs the ball on 41.4% of all offensive snaps and 88.0% of the time when facing expected rushing situations. That’s the second-highest rate in the NFL. The Giants also pass in expected passing situations just 77.4% of the time (the 14th-lowest rate in the NFL). They’re fairly predictable at running the ball and less so when passing.
New general manager Joe Schoen didn’t make major moves to acquire veteran players this offseason. The Giants’ highest-paid free-agent additions were guard Mark Glowinski and quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Wide receivers Isaiah Hodgins and Richie James were outside additions who have exceeded expectations, and tight end Daniel Bellinger and right tackle Evan Neal have contributed as rookies. Most of New York’s improvement on offense leads back to coaching, however. Jones, James, Hodgins, wide receiver Darius Slayton, left tackle Andrew Thomas and running back Saquon Barkley are simply playing better than they have in recent years. The Giants as a whole, on paper, are less talented than their NFC East counterparts, but have still managed to remain competitive.
Offensive coordinator and play-caller Mike Kafka, who came over from the Chiefs, is a head-coaching candidate for his work with Jones and the offense.
Some credit also perhaps goes to former Giants GM Dave Gettleman, who drafted Jones, Barkley, Slayton and Slayton.
Gettleman also drafted standout defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and safeties Xavier McKinney and Julian Love and signed other contributors. But once again, the coaching of defensive coordinator Wink Martindale earned him a head-coaching interview request with the Colts.
New York ranked 24th in defensive EVE, 12th in EVE against the pass and 30th in EVE against the run during the regular season. The team has had to piece together a defense that includes two starting linebackers in Jarrad Davis and Jaylon Smith who weren’t even part of the team over the summer.
The defense, like the team’s offense, is less talented on paper than the Eagles’ and Cowboys’ units. But it ranks fifth in pressure rate thanks to strong play from Lawrence, rookie edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux and veteran defensive lineman Leonard Williams plus a high blitz rate from Martindale. The Giants lead the league in blitz rate at 44.4% (see chart above). They’ve been able to keep up in the secondary despite releasing Bradberry and safety Logan Ryan.
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